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Former federal prosecutor questions why D.C. Atty Gen did not recuse himself from Gregory case

Former federal prosecutor questions why D.C. Atty Gen did not recuse himself from Gregory case

… but says A.G. reached the right decision not to prosecute anyway

At the time I wrote the post David Gregory and wife knew D.C. Attorney General, I deliberately avoided the question of whether D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan should have recused himself from involvement in the decision whether to prosecute Gregory.

Whether this connection meant Nathan had to recuse himself is not a conclusion that people need to jump to.

What’s important is that the connection reinforces public perception, as Emily Miller put it, of one law for “the rich and powerful and one for everyone else.”

As I thought about it some more, I reached the conclusion that the issue of recusal mattered.  We don’t know the extent of the interaction between Nathan and David Gregory and his wife, but we do know of at least one event when Nathan and Gregory’s wife, with Gregory in attendance, shared a stage.

If I were in that position, having interacted socially with the subject of the potential prosecution and his wife, even if only once, I would have felt uncomfortable as to whether I could make a truly impartial decision whether to prosecute.  Even if I felt I could, I would have worried how it would be perceived by the public if a photo of the event like this one came out:

Beth Wilkinson and Irv Nathan

Never having been a prosecutor, though, I thought it made sense to reach out to people with expertise in prosecutorial ethics and the use of prosecutorial discretion.

I reached out to two academics and a former federal prosecutor.  I have heard back from that former prosecutor, William G. Otis (more on his background here).  If I hear back from the academics, I’ll print their responses as well.

I deliberately asked an open-ended question, hoping not to skew the result.  Here is the question:

Would you be interested in writing either a guest post (500-800 words, or longer if you choose), or if not, a shorter statement, about the factors to be taken into consideration as to whether a prosecutor should recuse him/herself when a prosecutor is acquainted with the subject and/or his family? The issue specifically is that the D.C. Attorney General was acquainted with David Gregory and his wife, as detailed in my post David Gregory and wife knew D.C. Attorney General. While the level of acquaintance is not known, it is documentable that they knew each other. You would not have to take a position on that specific instance, although if the known facts enabled you to do so, that would be good.

Here was response from Mr. Otis to that question.  Please note that Mr. Otis does not assert any violation of legal ethics, only that it would have been better for Nathan to avoid any appearance of partiality given the controversial and politicized nature of the crime and the potential target of prosecution (emphasis mine):

Hi Prof. Jacobson,

I do have a few thoughts on it, which I shall set forth now. Feel free either to just post them inside a post of your own, or to turn it into a guest post.

In my view, a prosecutor should refrain from making a prosecute-or-not decision involving any potential defendant the prosecutor knows socially. Except where the acquaintanceship is so slight that no reasonable person could question the prosecutor’s impartiality, the prosecutor should recuse himself.

In the case of Mr. Nathan, what I would have done is ask someone from the US Attorney’s Office to come in as a Special Assistant to the DC Attorney General and make the decision.

The reason for this is that, even where the degree of acquaintance, and thus the likelihood of partiality, is low, the appearance of partiality is what needs to be avoided. This was especially true in the David Gregory case, for two reasons.

First, Gregory and Nathan are in the Georgetown cocktail party set, which the public already suspects of a great deal of mutual backscratching, a schmoozing process not available to your ordinary Joe waiting tables in Arlington.

Second, the potential case here was already a flash point. Many, especially on the conservative side, think that a non-prosecution decision reflects a double standard. They suspect that if some NRA-type had done the same thing on, say, Fox News, in an appearance designed to oppose, rather than promote, gun control, the NRA-type would in short order have found himself on the wrong end of an indictment.

That seems to me to be speculation, but I can see the conservatives’ point. The fact of the matter is that Gregory did violate the law, so the decision whether to prosecute was discretionary. Discretion by definition is exercised against the backdrop of the prevailing attitudes in the prosecutor’s jurisdiction, and the prevailing attitude in DC favors those speaking up for gun control and disfavors, as troglodytes or worse, those holding the opposing view. The decision not to prosecute also seems particularly suspect in view of the fact, reported in some circles, that Gregory or NBC or both had been warned that showing the ammo clip, even if empty, would indeed be a crime.

Thus, and predictably, the non-prosecution decision has an unfortunate aroma. This could have been avoided, or at least largely avoided, by bringing in an experienced prosecutor from outside Nathan’s Office who did not know Gregory.

P.S. In my judgment, the non-prosecution decision was correct. I always thought that, in exercising the awesome power a prosecutor wields, the first thing he needs to decide is whether he’s dealing with a criminal. Gregory did violate the statute, but no normal person would think of him as a criminal; his behavior was not bad faith or venal, or undertaken for some corrupt or bad motive. It is for similar reasons that, although I was considered a hardliner as an Assistant US Attorney, I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post suggesting a commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence. Like Gregory, Libby is someone no normal person could think of as a “criminal.”

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to toss in my two cents. If I can answer other questions, please don’t hesitate.

The need to avoid even the appearance of partiality makes sense, as the reaction to my post about the connection demonstrates.

I’m not sure I agree with the “P.S.” part of the answer, that the decision not to prosecute was correct.  (My question actually did not address the correctness of the decision.)  Given the reputation of the office for aggressive prosecution of gun law cases even against people without a criminal record and without any intent to commit some other crime, the public perception of the fair administration of the law is important as well.

I asked Otis about this in a subsequent email, and he responded, in part:

So I guess my answer to your question is that there should be consistency to the extent possible, but deciding specifically what that extent is, exactly, requires discretion. I understand how unsatisfactory that answer sounds, but if someone who has actually had to process thousands of cases, all with different defendants, fact patterns and circumstances, has a better one, I am very eager to hear it.

To me what is most troubling is not that Gregory was not prosecuted, it’s that the average person likely would not have been treated the same way.  That isn’t an issue of recusal, but it is what the controversy is all about.

As I stated regarding the prosecution of Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide, by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston:

What the people who mock our mockery of the handling of the Gregory case don’t get is that we didn’t want David Gregory prosecuted, we wanted an end to the arbitrary and capricious use of byzantine gun laws which capture innocent people in their web, but are not enforced as to the powerful and connected.  Perhaps if the people who advocated for those and even more onerous laws had to live by them, we might end the madness.


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An old saying from as far back as the American Revolution applies: “Laws are like spiders’ webs, trapping small creatures while great ones break through.”

This little trap is a huge reason I generally abhor “strict liability” criminal statutes.

Like “no tolerance” policy, they are a great way to breed contempt for the law and for authority generally, since they DO wind up being both capricious and stupidly applied.

As here, and with the case of the Special Forces soldier related the other day.

BTW, your prosecutor correspondent seems like one of the good ones. They are too rare.

There’s an old Sicilian proverb that fits the Gregory case to a “T”: “The law only catches the small fish.”

I would disgree on our not “wanting” to prosecute Gregory; we wanted him prosecuted, if only to have someone who advocates for these laws become snared by these draconian laws and have to defend himself using our arguments.

It’s only through the prosecution and acquittal or conviction and successful appeal that we hopefully make our point. (Ask Mr. McDonald from Chicago)

Clearly, the Collective could not afford to have that happen with a case that would be grabbing headlines.

Point is (imho) davey AND nbc deliberately broke D.C. City Law. The VERY least, is that both gregory and nbc should have been made to pay a heavy fine.

Shoulda’, coulda’ looked at it this way, Irv. Those hefty fines for intentional breaking of city laws, could have paid for..umm, oh say, THIS, instead of OUR tax dollars.

And who knows a night or two ‘in the CAN’,could have been enjoyable to davey.

Professor, exactly right!

The thing is if this DC AG, who is friends with little David’s wifey, had recused himself, the same outcome in terms of no prosecution might have been reached, but at least then, there would have been no perception of rich people like David Gregory and his wife having a differenent set of rules applied to them.

As far as I, just an average american, can see it, the Gregories are powerful, rich well connected elitists, the law and rules don’t apply to them, and for the trolls who say, where’s the proof, DUH! you had the wifey of Gregory who is friends with the DC atty general, who in his own words said David Greogory commited a crime, and YET he is not being prosecuted.

One set of rules for rich liberal well connected elitists like the Gregories, another set of rules for the rest of Americans!

    TrooperJohnSmith in reply to alex. | January 13, 2013 at 11:25 am

    [head slap] Voila!

    Now, I’m starting to understand how the French people mob felt just before they stormed the Bastille.

    Truly, America has it’s own “Second Estate”.



Compare how Aaron Swartz was treated with how David Gregory was treated. This is precisely the kind of thing that my — now forthcoming thanks to a spate of late-holiday-season productivity — Due Process When Everything Is A Crime piece addresses. (Bumped).

“Gregory or NBC or both had been warned that showing the ammo clip, even if empty, would indeed be a crime.”

No. It would be publishing both evidence and an assertion that a crime had been committed. It’s not a crime to publish any of this. Showing the ammo clip was no crime at all, and if it were made a crime, it would be privileged. It’s just proof that David Gregory did indeed violate the law by carrying the clip within the limits of the jurisdiction.

“the first thing he needs to decide is whether he’s dealing with a criminal. Gregory did violate the statute, but no normal person would think of him as a criminal; his behavior was not bad faith or venal, or undertaken for some corrupt or bad motive. ”

The great public debate right now includes the wisdom of giving that provision of that law wider applicability in this nation. If the prosecutor decides not to prosecute because it’s a dumb law, he should say so.

“What’s important is that the connection reinforces public perception, as Emily Miller put it, of one law for “the rich and powerful and one for everyone else.” ”

“the first thing he needs to decide is whether he’s dealing with a criminal. ”

I am not satisfied with this attempt to square a lawyer’s duty to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, particularly when serving in public office, with the decision not to prosecute this case, particularly in light of the DC prosecutor’s office to vigorously other cases which do not seem to be distinguishable on any legitimate factual basis.

The better course of action would be to focus on the alleged lack of intent and problematic language of the law as a basis for the refusal to prosecute, thereby clarifying the issue before the public.

That would be appropriate service by a prosecutor.

The prosecutor should only have asked himself not if he should prosecute David Gregory, but if he should prosecute anyone that is not David Gregory.

This is corruption.
Gregory broke the law – a law that other people, carrying the same magazine, have been sent to jail. The AG has an obligation to hold himself to the high standards of ethics, as well as the law.

If the gun laws are not made to be followed, then no one should be wasting everyone’s time with even more gun laws that rich journalist, ethically stunted AG, and corrupt politicians do not have to follow.

    TrooperJohnSmith in reply to tazz. | January 13, 2013 at 11:18 am

    That he was not charged should tell you that the DC authorities and even David Gregory think this is a stupid law.

    Why? Well imagine if he was discussing black tar heroin, child porn or homemade bombs. Do you think he would be playing show-and-tell with those props?

    Idiots. Floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall, idiots.

Well, I do not think that special forces guy transporting an empty weapon in his car was a criminal either … so using this logic, why was he prosecuted?

Why he didn’t recuse himself? The whole point of having Democrat prosecutors is to cover for the liberal establishment.
Just look at the behavior of Fitzgerald in Illinois.

Gregory did violate the statute, but no normal person would think of him as a criminal…

It sounds like Mr. Otis is saying that only people with a prior criminal record are subject to this law. Is that how the law is written? It’s like the old “which comes first, the chicken, or the egg” argument.

If David Gregory shows a high cap magazine on a future show, does he still get a get out of jail free card?

1. My thanks to Mr. Otis for taking time to share his experience and insight.

2. It gives me pause that, if indeed the DC police were consulted in advance, showing the magazine was a premeditated institutional decision by MSNBC. Had Gregory acted on his own without legal feedback, my agreement with Otis would be without reservations.

MaggotAtBroadAndWall | January 13, 2013 at 2:12 pm

I was with him until the “P.S.”. I take exception to the the assertion that Gregory was not acting in bad faith.

The segment consisted of Gregory grandstanding, bullying, and browbeating the NRA guy. The goal was to get the guy who is paid to advocate for Second Amendment freedom to agree that we need more gun laws (as if 20,000 pages of federal, state, and municipal gun laws is not enough). To prepare for the segment, Gregory and NBC got legal advise warning them that displaying a high capacity magazine on TV would violate the law. Gregory and NBC, now fully aware that the stunt would violate the law, did it anyway. So we end up with a TV segment in which Gregory knowingly in a pre-meditated fashion violated a gun law to advocate for more gun laws. Why is that not bad faith?

It’s almost as if he knew, or held a strong belief, that the likelihood that he’d be prosecuted was very low, or perhaps non-existent.

As Lexington Green over at said recently:
“America today is one WTF after another”

It is insufficient. I find it intolerable that that petty little hypocrite has sought, and apparently succeeded, in shielding himself from the very laws he seeks to terrorize us with.

Where the hell is justice in a law even its own advocates refuse to live by?

A little due process is in order, Professor.

You know nothing about the relationship -if any — btw Wilkinson and Nathan. You admit that.

But then you refuse to give Nathan the benefit of the doubt. Guy is not a hack just because he is a DEM

Maybe you should be asking for more information .

There are so many laws and regulations that carry criminal penalties for violations that one cannot walk outside of his home without unintentionally violating one or more of them.

2nd Ammendment Mother | January 14, 2013 at 10:54 am

IMHO, the issues surrounding Nathan and Gregory are the micro of this entire 2nd Amendment Challenge we are facing. The very people who are hell bent on depriving the average Joe of his rights are those who will never be subject to the consequences of those restrictions. These people live behind a wall of armed security that the average person would never be able to afford or even desire. The greatest liberty that the 2nd Amendment affords Americans is the ability to live their lives free from fear and secure in our ability to defend ourselves and our loved ones.