The chief judge of the federal court here told Justice Department prosecutors to ask that a criminal case against a Democratic fund-raiser be assigned to a judge appointed by President Clinton, records show.
Chief District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, already under investigation for bypassing the court’s random computer assignment system, made the request in the prosecution of Democratic fund-raiser Maria Hsia.
Judge Johnson has suggested she assigned the Hsia case to Judge Paul L. Friedman, a Clinton appointee, because it was related to a case he already had been assigned the prosecution of Arkansas businessman Charles Yah Lin Trie. She used the department’s statement that the cases were related as justification for her decision to bypass the random assignment system.
In a Feb. 14 letter to the House Judiciary subcommittee on the courts and intellectual property, the Justice Department acknowleged that it had filed “a related case notice stating that at the suggestion of the chief judge” the Hsia case was related to the Trie prosecution.
Rep. Howard Coble, North Carolina Republican and the subcommittee’s chairman, questioned whether the department’s designation was appropriate.
“As far as I am concerned, this procedure is unusual, unorthodox and may be improper,” said Mr. Coble. “The subcommittee is concerned that the chief judge may have improperly influenced the department’s decision to file a related case notice.
“Did Chief Judge Johnson abuse her position by requesting that the department file a notice of a related case, particularly when the department apparently did not believe the cases were related?” Mr. Coble asked in requesting that the ongoing investigation be expanded. “Was this an attempt to disguise a special assignment? … An investigation in this matter should immediately be commenced.”
The subcommittee has jurisdiction over the federal courts.
The Judicial Council was requested last month by Mr. Coble to investigate Judge Johnson’s case assignments, saying there were questions concerning the propriety of her decision to bypass the random assignment system. He said in a letter that the judge’s actions “may have been prejudicial to the effective and impartial administration” of the court’s business.
Mr. Coble said Judge Johnson bypassed the random case-assignment process in four campaign-finance cases “potentially embarrassing” to the president and the Democratic National Committee.
The cases involved Trie; former Associate Attorney General Webster L. Hubbell; Democratic fund-raiser Howard Glicken; Thai lobbyist Pauline Kanchanalak; and Miami fund-raiser Mark B. Jimenez. The judges involved Judge Friedman, James Robertson and Emmet G. Sullivan, all of whom were named to the bench by Mr. Clinton in 1994; and Henry H. Kennedy Jr., appointed by Mr. Clinton in 1997.
The Judicial Council, earlier this month, ordered acting Appeals Court Chief Judge Stephen F. Williams to determine why the random assignment system was bypassed in the cases.
Judge Johnson, appointed to the bench in 1980 by President Carter, has declined comment. But she told The Washington Times in a letter last month she was authorized to assign “protracted or complex criminal cases to consenting judges when circumstances warrant.”
Earlier this month, senior judges at the federal court abolished the policy that let Judge Johnson bypass the random assignment system. Instead, they created a new system in which high-profile or lengthy cases will be assigned on a random basis to a separate pool that will include all the judges.
The trial of Mrs. Hsia continued yesterday in federal court. She is charged with five felony counts of causing false statements to be filed with the Federal Election Commission about the true source of campaign donations. Prosecutors said she illegally reimbursed contributors for more than $100,000 in donations they made to the Clinton-Gore 1996 re-election campaign and the Democratic Party.
Mr. Coble’s concerns about the assignments surfaced after two federal appeals court panels reinstated the Hubbell case that Judge Robertson had thrown out and reversed a ruling by Judge Friedman in the Trie case, resulting in a guilty plea several days later. Another appeals court panel reinstated charges against Mrs. Kanchanalak of making false statements to the Federal Election Commission about money she contributed to the DNC.
He also said in his letter that “no rationalization can possibly justify” the assignment of the Glicken case to Judge Kennedy, adding there was “nothing complicated or protracted about this case” and Glicken’s attorney announced on the day he was charged he would plead guilty.