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Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz

Posted: March 14, 2007 02:40 PM

Prosecutor Mess Shows Sick Priorities of Bush Justice Department: Jailing Physicians, Pot Dealers and Bong-Makers


If you've been following the prosecutions of pain doctors for "overprescribing" opioid medication and the recent firings by the Bush administration of eight U.S. attorneys, an unsettling pattern emerges.

The prosecutors responsible for the highly publicized cases in which ethical pain doctors were convicted of drug dealing are not amongst those who were let go: in fact, some have been promoted.

Take Mary Beth Buchanan, who became U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania less than a week before the terror attacks of 9/11 left the wreckage of Flight 93 scattered in her district. After that hideous day, you might imagine that the Justice Department would reward prosecutors who prioritized terrorism cases. But one of Buchanan's first major operations was "Operation Pipe Dreams"-- a $12 million investigation which resulted in the arrest of 55 people (including actor Tommy Chong) for selling bongs on the Net.

And Buchanan wasn't content with shifting marijuana smokers from bong hits to joints. Another high profile target was pain doctor Bernard Rottschaefer. Rottschaefer made the mistake of taking mercy on people in pain-- even those who also suffered addictions.

When a number of female addicts in his care got busted, in return for lighter sentences they told the DEA that he'd coerced them into performing sexual favors in order to get drugs. He was convicted of illegally prescribing and sentenced to 6 1/2 years.

Then one of the women-- the aptly-named Jennifer Riggle-- broke up with her boyfriend. Angered, he sent letters that she'd written him confessing perjury to Rottschaefer's defense attorney. In them, she admitted lying about having had sex with the doctor in order to give the DEA the testimony it wanted. She also admitted prostitution-- so it wasn't as though she was lying to her boyfriend about sex with another man to avoid making him jealous. And the testimony of the other women soon proved to be similarly tainted.

Although Buchanan threatened to prosecute Riggle for perjury, she did not: in fact, Riggle was rewarded for her cooperation even after the case collapsed. And although Rottschaefer's sentence was recently reduced, the now completely-tainted case was not reversed on appeal (the higher court didn't think the evidence of perjury by the star witness would have affected the outcome!) and the 60something physician is still in prison.

Moreover, it isn't like Buchanan believes perjurers should go free-- at least if they are Democrats. She did vigorously pursue numerous Democratic officials in Pennsylvania on that charge. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has pointed out, the U.S. attorneys who were fired were known to have resisted pressure to aggressively pursue Democrats when Republicans were in jeopardy of losing elected positions-- but we don't know about politically motivated prosecutions that did occur amongst those who failed to resist.

Buchanan has just been promoted to head the Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women. And what happened to the prosecutor who went after Dr. William Hurwitz for treating pain patients with high dose opioids? Still on the job-- as the Court of Appeals sent the case back for re-trial because Hurwitz was not given a chance to prove he had acted as a doctor, not a dealer. The prosecutors who targeted Drs. Hassman, McIver, Knox, Bordeaux and others are still either employed by the Justice Department or have left for other reasons.

Documents released to the New York Times
show that drug policy issues were definitely a part of which prosecutors were kept on and which were fired. One incredible email appears to reveal that President Bush himself was concerned that Dennis Hastert had complained that a federal prosecutor was refusing to pursue marijuana trafficking cases involving less than 500 pounds of pot.

As Iraq burns, as Afghanistan decays, while the stock market is crashing, it's good to know that our detail-oriented President and some of our hard-working members of Congress are worried about whether or not we're going after enough marijuana dealers. And perhaps whether or not enough pain doctors are in prison.