A federal judge in Los Angeles has tossed a substantial portion of the federal government's criminal case against Pierce O'Donnell, the lead attorney representing Hurricane Katrina victims in litigation against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero of the Central District of California granted O'Donnell's motion to dismiss charges that he allegedly reimbursed employees of his law firm and other individuals for giving $26,000 in campaign contributions to a committee supporting a presidential candidate, believed to be former U.S. Senator John Edwards, D-N.C. O'Donnell had claimed that the section of the Federal Election Campaign Act under which he was charged does not criminally sanction the reimbursement of contributions or indirect contributions.
"Indeed, it appears that if Congress intended [the statute] to apply to indirect contributions, or contributions made through a conduit or intermediary, it would have included explicit language, as it did in other sections of the same statute," Otero said.
The judge let stand other charges that O'Donnell allegedly influenced the treasurer of the presidential campaign committee to make false statements to the Federal Election Commission by failing to reveal "conduit" campaign contributions in 2003. O'Donnell had argued that such actions did not constitute a crime.
In an e-mailed statement, O'Donnell's lawyer, George J. Terwilliger III, a partner in the Washington office of White & Case, said that a conduit contribution is not a felony offense but rather is subject to sanctions ranging from civil litigation brought by the Federal Election Commission to criminal sanctions such as monetary fines or less serious charges like misdemeanors.
"The charges were dismissed because the U.S. Attorney over-reached in an attempt to use the law far more broadly than its terms allow," Terwilliger wrote. "Mr. O'Donnell simply did not commit the crime with which he was charged. All citizens, including those who favor strong and effective law enforcement, can take heart from the fact that the judiciary stands guard against prosecutorial excess."
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, said: "We have just received the order from the court. We're reviewing it to determine what action we'll take."
O'Donnell has filed a suit on behalf of hundreds of thousands of homeowners alleging that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' failure to maintain levees along a major navigation channel contributed to the flooding from Hurricane Katrina. A federal judge in New Orleans took the case under submission after trial concluded last month. The government has estimated the case could cost it $100 billion in damages.