Federal Bribery/Fraud Investigations: Lawyers Need to Keep Their Mouths Shut Occassionally

A major federal criminal investigation is apparently brewing in the San Diego area. According to news reports, like this one, there are allegations and criminal charges being alleged against some high-ranking Navy officers, and the owner of a major Asia-based supplier of fuel for US ships. While this is still very early, the charges seem to imply that Navy officials took bribes that helped the fuel supplier get more business. According to the charges, the supplier then gouged the Navy with higher prices. At least one Navy officer is also alleged to have kept the owner of the fuel supply company apprised on the internal investigation into all this “fuelishness”.

I always read such stories with a jaundiced eye. The press if often captive to the prosecution at these early stages of a criminal case. Reporters often do nothing other than paraphrase whatever charging document is filed in court or parrot back the government’s press release.

What really caught my eye, however, is that the lawyers for all of the Defendants “declined to comment.” That leads to a brief discussion of when it is appropriate to make a public comment on behalf of a person charged with a crime, whether it’s a major federal bribery investigation or some other matter.

Lawyers are notorious for wanting to get into the papers and on TV. Over the past decade, a veritable marketplace has sprung up to get attorneys on TV to blab on about some case they know nothing about. The attorney is touted as an “expert,” often a former prosecutor who now does defense work and claims to therefore have some special insight into the whole process. The media gobbles up such blather, filling the airwaves with the ramblings of a series of attorneys who simply are trying to get their name out in the public realm by commenting on another lawyer’s case. I cannot criticize good marketing by lawyers, but sometimes these “talking heads” really do not know what they are talking about.

Because lawyers almost always welcome publicity, clients need to hire an attorney who knows the differnce between a case that requires public comment, and another matter where “no comment” is the best approach. Clients should be especially wary of an attorney who seems to always want to make a public statement, no matter what case he or she is working on.

Saying “no comment” is often the right move, but not always. Other times, an experienced criminal defense lawyer knows that he or she can trade a public statement in return for learning some other facts from the reporters. On occasion, it is important to get a certain “message” out that will be one of the central themes of the defense. There is no single answer, but I am always pleased when I see experienced attorneys who decline the chance for easy publicity in a high profile matter. Often, these are the lawyers who are best suited for the case, and recognize that there is a time to talk, and a time to keep their mouths shut.