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Telework for Government Lawyers
Becoming Viable After the Pandemic

     A Senate hearing last week showed strong support among government officials for continuing telework among employees even after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
     The kind of regulatory and litigation work done by government lawyers and their contractors is a top contender for telecommuting. Many Justice Department and D.C. Attorney General’s Office attorneys already are working remotely.
     Federal agency executives and senators said telework is bringing down their costs and improving the quality of job applicants without reducing productivity.
     “We should at least have something good come out of this pandemic,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee that held the hearing.
     Lankford said he is working with the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee on regulatory affairs and federal management to develop new legislation that would broaden government use of telework.
     Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., the ranking Democrat, said that since her employees switched to telework, “There’s been no interruption in our work.”
     Although Democrats and Republicans liked the idea of more telework, they were concerned about increased security and privacy risks when government computers are used out of their normal offices. 
     One of the risks they mentioned was ransomware, when hackers block access to computer access until they are paid money.
     Witnesses from government agencies said improvements in computer technology have reduced hacking problems enough that telework could become a viable option. Current regulations that limit telework are designed partly to reduce the risks.
     “There are some limitations, some statutory, some regulatory, but technology can overcome those challenges,” said Jim Borland, deputy chief information officer for the Social Security Administration.
     The agency’s employees are making wider use of video teleconferencing, data exchanges and “persistent chat rooms” that allow them to stay in contact with each other, Borland said.
     Michelle Rosenberg, acting director of strategic issues for the Government Accountability Office, said, “Telework requires a different way of managing staff.”
     Instead of checking in on how employees are working, “You have to manage by results,” she said.
     For more information, contact The Legal Forum (www.legal-forum.net) at email: tramstack@gmail.com or phone: 202-479-7240.

U.S. Attorneys Get Court Order
To Audit D.C. Forensics Lab

     The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C. is reviewing forensics reports for errors that might have led to wrongful convictions in recent years.
     The prosecutors had to get a court order for the records after the D.C. forensic sciences lab resisted turning them over.
     The dispute started as evidence emerged of a flawed 2017 ballistics analysis that incorrectly linked shell casings to two murders. The U.S. Attorney’s Office followed up with an audit of numerous cases handled by the forensics lab.
     Prosecutors said they had little choice because they are required by federal procedure to turn over exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys. A letter they wrote to the head of the Department of Forensic Sciences explained that they were trying “to protect the viability of our prosecutions.”
     They acknowledged the audit, which started in the spring, for the first time this month. Among the 60 cases reviewed so far, 12 of them showed potential problems.
     The auditors reached different conclusions than lab examiners on the same evidence in six of the cases. The cases came from the D.C. Department of Forensic Science’s firearms unit and were presented as evidence in D.C. Superior Court.
     In some cases, the independent auditors matched bullets or cartridge casings that the lab examiners overlooked.
     They won authorization for the audit in a court order from D.C. Superior Court Judge Todd Edelman. He ruled that the Department of Forensic Sciences must give the U.S. Attorney’s Office 24 of the more than 50 documents they sought.
     Edelman described the preliminary results of the audit as “startling.” He also remarked on what he described as a battle between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the forensics lab.
     Prosecutors discovered the first set of errors when they hired an outside expert to reexamine shell casings at the site of two murders. The forensics lab concluded they were fired by the same gun. The outside expert disagreed.
     By the time the error was discovered, two men, Rondell McLeod and Joseph Brown, were charged with murder.
     At first, the forensics lab denied making a mistake. Later they reclassified the inaccurate evidence as an “administrative error.”
     For more information, contact The Legal Forum (www.legal-forum.net) at email: tramstack@gmail.com or phone: 202-479-7240.

Baltimore Pays $8 Million to Two Men
Improperly Convicted of Drug Crime

     Two Maryland men improperly convicted on drug charges will receive a nearly $8 million settlement soon after Baltimore’s spending board approved a settlement for them.
     They served time in a federal prison after what was supposed to be an elite team of the Baltimore Police Department planted drugs on them in 2010.
     The truth of the improper conviction, along with scathing details of corruption, were revealed through a federal investigation. 
     Eight of the nine members of the police department’s Gun Trace Task Force were charged with serious crimes and civil rights violations. Six pleaded guilty. The other two were convicted this month.
     In the cases of Umar Burley and Brent Matthews, Task Force members said they saw the two men conducting a drug transaction when they were arrested. Burley left quickly in his car as plainclothes officers moved in to arrest him.
     He collided with another car, killing an 86-year-old passenger. Burley spent seven years in prison before the federal investigation revealed the Baltimore police planted drugs found in his car.
     “We believe these settlements to be in the best interest of both the city and the plaintiffs who may have been harmed by the misconduct of former [Gun Trace Task Force] members,” says a memo from Baltimore’s city law department.
     The lawsuit by Burley and Matthews accuses city officials of knowing about the police misconduct but declining to stop it. Some of their allegations were backed up by the federal investigation.
     Officers who cooperated with investigators acknowledged that they stole money and falsified evidence for years but had little fear of intervention by city officials or being prosecuted for their misbehavior.
     The settlement for Burley and Matthews brings the total amount of damages paid by the city to $13 million after settling 18 other cases filed because of the Gun Trace Task Force.
     The Baltimore Police Department organized the Task Force to target drug and gun crimes. It has now been disbanded.
     For more information, contact The Legal Forum (www.legal-forum.net) at email: tramstack@gmail.com or phone: 202-479-7240.

Virginia’s Governor Seeks
Legalized Marijuana Use

     Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said last week he wants to legalize recreational use of marijuana.
     He plans to propose legalization during the next legislative session, where the idea is expected to win support among the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. Republicans blocked similar proposals previously.
     Like other lawmakers, Northam has shifted his attitude toward marijuana in recent years as studies emerged showing its medicinal benefits and potential for new state tax revenue. Earlier this year, Northam signed legislation reducing the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana to $25.
     The District of Columbia and Maryland already have joined 14 other states that allow limited use of recreational marijuana. The first was Colorado in 2012.
     Part of the change in attitudes comes from racial inequities in arrests.
     In Virginia, police arrest more than 20,000 people per year on marijuana offenses. A disproportionate number of them are Black, according to Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) report.
     The General Assembly also plans to consider sealing criminal records for marijuana-related convictions.
     The JLARC report said the state would need to spend $8 million to $20 million to set up the administrative framework for marijuana sales. It would take a year and include licensing private companies and arranging regulatory oversight.
     However, the financial return could be great, the JLARC report says.
     Legalization would generate more than 11,000 jobs and $300 million in annual sales tax revenue. The jobs would be mostly lower-paying positions in retail, security and production.
     For more information, contact The Legal Forum (www.legal-forum.net) at email: tramstack@gmail.com or phone: 202-479-7240.

Loudoun County Elite STEM School
Revises Admissions to Avoid Racism

     An elite high school in Loudoun County, Va., is being forced to revise its admissions policies after a report by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office late last week that alleges discrimination against Black and Hispanic students.
     The 61-page report recommends that the suburban Academies of Loudoun seek assistance from the NAACP for a “conciliation process” to develop new policies. The high school accepts only students likely to excel at science, technology, engineering and math.
     The report claims “disparate impact” discrimination, in which a policy or practice affects members of a protected group so disproportionately that discrimination can be inferred.
     The state attorney general says the Academies of Loudoun uses a “facially neutral” admissions policy but that it bars qualified Black and Hispanic students. The policy requires that eighth grade student applicants be rated first on their science and math skills using standardized tests, followed by a teacher evaluation of their writing styles and letters of recommendation.
     “Here, a simple statistical analysis revealed evidence disparities between Black/African-American students and Latinx/Hispanic students as compared to White students and Asian-American students,” the attorney general’s report says.
     The report also cites specific instances of racism, such as when a White teacher marked a Black student’s test answers as wrong even though they were correct. In a separate incident, a Black student was compelled to “reenact being a runaway slave on the underground railroad” during a class lesson.
     The attorney general decided to leave some decisions to school officials after determining they were aware of the problem and already trying to be proactive.
     They unveiled their “Action Plan to Combat Systemic Racism” last summer. It includes plans to revise the admissions process as well as racial sensitivity training for students and staff.
     The attorney general launched its 13-month investigation in response to a discrimination complaint from the NAACP of Loudoun County. Dozens of students, teachers and others were interviewed during the investigation.

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