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Corruption probe meets parameters of act’s foes

Nevada Appeal Staff Reports

by John L. Smith

So much for the subtle approach.

And so much for wrapping up the G-Sting investigation any time soon.

The decision by the FBI and Justice Department to employ elements of the Patriot Act to gather financial information in the public corruption case only guarantees it will drag on and on – even if it eventually is shown that the investigative techniques used were on the books for decades. What might have been an effort to save time in a case that showed signs of bogging down under its own weight is bound to have the opposite effect.

Quoting an FBI spokesman, the Review-Journal reported Tuesday that its agents “used a section of the Patriot Act to get subpoenas for financial documents. It was used appropriately by the FBI and was clearly within the legal parameters of the statute.”

Clearly within the legal parameters of the statute?

If only it were that simple.

But there’s nothing simple about the politics of the Patriot Act and the real and imagined threats it poses to our nation’s civil liberties.

Has the law crafted and marketed “for terrorists only” really been used to assist in a mundane public corruption probe?

Only time and a lengthy court hearing will determine whether the new and controversial provisions of the act actually were employed. Either way, prosecutors and defense attorneys can kiss goodbye any hope of wrapping up this case before disco comes back in style and the Red Sox win the World Series.

This development also ensures that a regional public corruption investigation now will gain a national audience of concerned Americans, civil libertarians, and those who are flat frightened of the potential abuses of the Patriot Act. To wit: The leadership of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has agreed to join the litigation in a friend-of-the-court capacity. And the controversy is perfect grist for the American Civil Liberties Union, whose national office goes head to head daily with Patriot Act founding father Attorney General John Ashcroft.

If it’s proven that one of the controversial provisions of the Patriot Act was used, the outcome of the political corruption case will be obscured by the weightier national issues. But even if it turns out right for the government, it’s made-to-order for the defense in a miserably messy case.

This affair already includes warring factions of the San Diego and Las Vegas U.S. attorney offices, 30 months of wiretaps, allegations of unethical behavior by FBI agents and at least one prosecutor, and what some consider unholy deals carved out for topless bar mogul Michael Galardi and former Clark County Commissioner Erin Kenny.

It’s impossible to credibly argue that prosecutors and investigators needed the Patriot Act’s super-secret components.

Dominic Gentile, attorney for former County Commissioner Lance Malone, is bracing for a bare-knuckle street brawl.

“I had a feeling when they put the word ‘Patriot’ in the title of this act there was something to worry about, because they backed senators and congressmen into a corner and made it appear un-American to vote against something with the word ‘Patriot’ in it,” Gentile said. “It would be better named the ‘Fascist Act.'”

What, you were expecting understatement?

The resounding silence from the U.S. attorney and FBI invites speculation, and there are possible reasons for applying the Patriot Act. Fact is, an investigation involving suspected crooked politicians and a sleazy topless bar operator would make an ideal test case for expanding a controversial law.

After all, most citizens wouldn’t mind if their crooked politicians were hanged without a hearing.

U.S. attorney’s office spokeswoman Natalie Collins declined comment, saying regulations forbid discussion of on ongoing investigations and investigative procedures.

FBI media spokesman Jim Stern, author of the Patriot Act confirmation, kept it brief.

“It’s a pending investigation,” Stern said, “and I cannot comment any further.”

It’s only a guess, but I suspect he’s been told it’s a little late for the subtle approach.

John L. Smith’s column appears Fridays in the Nevada Appeal. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.