We just got news of some praiseworthy work Arizona lawyers have done. And given the fields they toil in, let’s hope it’s a precursor to more positive change.

Dennis Burke, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona

The news came out of the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona. There, eight employees were honored with national awards, given last Wednesday.

As the press release begins, “Eight employees from the Office of the United States Attorney, District of Arizona, have been selected as recipients of the 2010 Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) Director’s Awards. These eight employees represent the highest number of awardees in one year for the District of Arizona.  The awards reflect the top priorities in the District for border security, drug trafficking on Indian County and mortgage fraud.”

Honored were Assistant U.S. Attorneys Shelley Clemens, Marnie Hodahkwen, Joe Lodge, Nicole Savel, Sharon Sexton, John Tuchi, Kevin Rapp and Brian Larson.

U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke is rightly proud of his staffers’ accomplishments. These honors are coveted, and it’s great to have Arizona lawyering recognized on a national stage.

You can read the complete release below. (Read the complete list of honorees here.)

It is especially noteworthy that the majority of attorneys receiving accolades are being honored for “Superior Performance in Indian Country.”

The high crime rate and lack of prosecution on Indian reservations has been a serious problem for quite awhile. In fact, few could argue with the fact that the persistence of the problem is a national embarrassment.

Just this past September, an Arizona Republic news story by Dennis Wagner examined the intractable problem of high crime and “declinations” to prosecute—usually due to a lack of evidence, which relates to “convoluted jurisdictional boundaries, insufficient funds for training, and distrust and limited communication between federal and tribal investigators.” Add to that abysmally low police staffing, and you have a problem that many would prefer to keep from the public’s eye.

Today’s newspaper provided another glimpse into the ongoing problem. It reported that half of all crimes committed on Indian land go unprosecuted.

Half.

In places where crime is more than twice the national average. Where more than one in three Native American women are raped sometime during their lives.

It boggles the mind. Can we imagine any other place in the 50 states where such a chronic situation would be allowed to exist for generations?

The story today reports that Arizona and South Dakota account for about half the cases that all federal prosecutors receive annually.

“What’s most disconcerting about these [declination] numbers is that they probably don’t even tell the full story,” said Katy Jackman, staff attorney at the National Congress of American Indians. “What they do confirm is, as we’ve known for some time, that declination rates in Indian country are a major problem.”

Some optimistic news comes out of these numbers, however. Data show that federal prosecutors in Arizona declined “only” 38 percent of the Indian land cases sent to them, whereas prosecutors in South Dakota declined to prosecute 61 percent. (It does not report whether our state is on an upward or a downward trend.)

Congratulations to the prosecutors who have worked hard to develop strategies that make our state safer. The attention that U.S. Attorney Burke and his prosecutors have given to reservation crime is a welcome sign that they are committed to addressing an epidemic that has too much become an accepted commonplace.

We’re looking forward to more positive stories about significant advances in safety and justice, especially on Indian reservations. For as all great prosecutors know, the legacy of their work’s effectiveness is cast most indelibly not in places where TV cameras reach easily. It is sealed in the trust of the most vulnerable—who until now have learned that they are largely on their own when it comes to justice.

Here is the press release.

Eight Members of Arizona’s U.S. Attorney’s Office Honored

Employees to receive prestigious Director’s Awards; reflect top priorities of District

PHOENIX—Eight employees from the Office of the United States Attorney, District of Arizona, have been selected as recipients of the 2010 Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) Director’s Awards.

These eight employees represent the highest number of awardees in one year for the District of Arizona.  The awards reflect the top priorities in the District for border security, drug trafficking on Indian County and mortgage fraud.

“Over the past 14 months, the District has focused on expanding security beyond our border back into Mexico and blocking drug trafficking from bleeding into Indian Country,” said Dennis K. Burke, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona.  “We’ve also aggressively targeted the mortgage fraudsters who aided and abetted the decimation of home values in Arizona.”

The employees received their awards from Attorney General Eric Holder at a ceremony December 8 in Washington, D.C.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Shelley Clemens, Marnie Hodahkwen, Joe Lodge, Nicole Savel, Sharon Sexton and John Tuchi will receive the award for Superior Performance in Indian Country.  This team was nominated for development of a comprehensive Indian Country Public Safety program that serves as a model for other Districts across the United States.

The team developed several successful initiatives this year, including joint federal-tribal investigations into drug distribution organizations on four different reservations across Arizona.  The effort has resulted in more than 50 indictments to date.

Kevin Rapp will receive the award for Superior Performance as an Assistant United States Attorney-Criminal.  Rapp was nominated for his excellent work in the mortgage fraud case of the U.S. v Bernadel, et al.

His work in the case resulted in the conviction of eight defendants in a nearly $10 million dollar mortgage scheme.  The lead defendant in the case received a nearly 17-year prison sentence.

The case has been used as a national model for successful mortgage fraud prosecution.  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has frequently cited the Bernadel case as an example of the successful efforts by the Department of Justice to combat mortgage fraud.

Brian Larson will also receive an award for Superior Performance as an Assistant United States Attorney-Criminal.  Brian was nominated for his outstanding work to further the mission of the first-ever Rule of Law Group in the District of Arizona and the Department of Justice on the southwest border.

Larson has coordinated and conducted training of Mexican prosecutors and investigators in Sonora as part of the “Rule of Law” outreach.  His work has been instrumental in developing cooperative law enforcement relationships with prosecutors and investigators throughout Mexico, and in coordinating prosecution of some of the most high profile drug trafficking cases in the District of Arizona.

“The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona has done more to prosecute border crimes, crimes in Indian Country and mortgage fraud than any other District in the country,” said Burke.  “These award winners exemplify that leadership and are a testament to how we lead the nation.”

The Director’s Awards are nation-wide awards through which the Attorney General honors the employees of the 93 United States Attorneys’ Offices and EOUSA, as well as other individuals, who have supported the mission of these offices and distinguished themselves through extraordinary professional achievements and excellence.

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