Computer technology has become a more integral part of the criminal justice system, and there’s new evidence of that in the federal prosecutor’s office covering the region.
Not long after U.S. Attorney David Hickton was installed as the top law enforcement official for western Pennsylvania, his reorganization of the criminal division included a new national security cyber group in addition to the traditional offices that prosecute white collar crime, violent crime and civil rights offenses.
“Cyber as a platform for both crime and investigation of crime has become a consistent issue and almost every case has a cyber aspect to it today,” Hickton said.
Fighting fire with fire would be a fair analogy, as computers are being used to solve crimes perpetrated with the help of computers. But Hickton said he wants to take technology even farther in the U.S. Attorney’s office, using it in ways to make sure some crimes never happen.
Hickton talked about the U.S. Attorney’s role in regional law enforcement and about his plans for the office during a visit to Indiana County. He spoke Wednesday at the Take Back the Night rally as part of Domestic Assault Awareness Month activities on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus, and visited with the staff at The Indiana Gazette.
Hickton was appointed to the post in August 2010, and his district encompasses 25 counties stretching into central Pennsylvania, with offices in Pittsburgh, Erie and Johnstown. The office is responsible for enforcing federal laws both criminal and civil. Hickton and his staff of attorneys defend the U.S. government when someone files a lawsuit against any federal agency, and they pursue compliance with federal regulations, especially in recovering abused funds.
“We have what we call the affirmative civil enforcement side and we’ve really put some juice into that,” Hickton said. “We chase federal money, whether its fraud money or unpaid debts to the United States. Statistically, there actually are more civil cases.”
Across the nation, Hickton said, U.S. district attorneys recovered $6.5 billion last year.
“We actually recover more than we cost,” he said. “In Pittsburgh, for example, the rough budget for our office is $10 million. We brought $19 million back, so we were operating to the positive.”
Hickton is a native of the Pittsburgh area and has degrees from Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He was a co-founder of the Burns, White & Hickton law firm in 1987, and has served as an adjunct professor of law at Duquesne University.
In most phases of investigation and prosecution, Hickton said, his office relies on many other federal agencies including the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, and the immigration and homeland security offices. The U.S. Attorney frequently cooperates with state and local law enforcement ranging from municipal police to county sheriffs, county district attorneys and state police.
And when the feds prosecute people involved in “the most vile depravity you could imagine” — the production and trafficking of child pornography — Hickton said his office relies on a resource in Indiana County. Robert Erdely, a retired state police trooper now serving as a detective in the Indiana County Court House, has an international reputation as a computer crime investigations expert, and often brings cases that end up in federal courts, Hickton said.
Narcotics trafficking, major theft cases and child pornography are crimes that are commonly taken over by the U.S. attorney’s office.
“What takes a case federal is if our extra jurisdictional reach is helpful, or the tools we have on the federal side might be helpful, but frequently we have sentences that are more severe,” Hickton said. “So in violent crime, we have the armed career criminal sentences and some of the mandatory minimums for someone who, for a similar act (prosecuted under state laws), might get a low sentence or get probation” in a state or county court.
“In the area of child porn and protecting children, frequently we can take a case through the federal aside where we use computer forensics to establish a violation of federal law with a stiff sentence. And we can protect a kid from having to testify.”
Technology resources allow investigators to track down and prosecutors to arrest and charge offenders far beyond the boundaries of the western Pennsylvania district, Hickton said. His staff prosecuted a man who had taken a 13-year-old girl and was traced to South Dakota. And Hickton said cybercrime investigators last year solved a string of bomb threats at the University of Pittsburgh and its related hospitals, a case that many thought would go unsolved, but culminated with the arrest of a suspect in Ireland.
The drug trade in western Pennsylvania has been traced to illegal narcotics kingpins in Newark, N.J., Cleveland and Detroit, Hickton said, but his office is seeing a major, deadly new trend emerge: the abuse of prescription pills facilitated by doctors and pharmacists in the region.
“We’ve also brought balance to the joint prosecutions, I think, because we’ve been huge on prescription pills,” Hickton said. “A lot of people sit back and say, ‘This is not in my community,’ but Washington County had more than 50 basically synthetic heroin deaths through pill abuse last year. They had 12 the year before.
“We prosecuted two large networks for prescription pills, one of which was run by Dr. Oliver Herndon in Washington and Allegheny counties. The number of pills, the synthetic opiates, that he put on the street approached 800,000. But I do know the price of the pills doubled and tripled just by taking him off. He got a long sentence.”
As part of drug law enforcement, Hickton’s office has conducted community outreach, particularly a summit conference at Washington & Jefferson College and many high schools in Washington County. Curbing drug abuse begins with understanding and having compassion for drug addicts, he said.
“If you have the wrong genetic code and you take these pills, you need those pills like you need oxygen, and in my opinion it is not your fault,” Hickton said. “We need to treat that as a sickness.”
Through wiretap investigations, he said, prescription drug peddlers have been heard “belittling and mocking the addicts. They don’t do it themselves because they want to stay clear-minded. They have evil, wicked hearts and they are just making money off sick people. They are like people who would go to a person in a wheelchair and knock them out of their wheelchair,” Hickton said. “That’s how I see this.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office has prosecuted some well-publicized cases in Indiana County in recent years, including the guilty pleas and sentencing of three men who admitted burning a cross on the lawn of a multirace family’s home in Robinson, West Wheatfield Township, and the current investigation of the embezzlement of millions of dollars from Falcon Drilling Company in Indiana. So far, one person has been indicted on theft allegations.
Hickton told the Gazette that he plans to use the sway of his office to curb crime by rallying community leaders together in programs intended to steer at-risk young people into productive lives. And technology will play a role in the initiative, the Youth Futures Commission.
The program is to be formally introduced next month.
“It will be a large organization of community leaders that’s working on crime prevention councils … beginning with a partnership with the United Way called Be One in a Million, a mentoring program that spins off an existing program called Be a Sixth Grade mentor,” Hickton said. “We’re working on other initiatives there, but largely it’s going to become about jobs.”
Partners in the program will include law schools, a community college, a major labor union, some corporations and some researchers.
A second program, Cyber Patriots, would target youths Hickton described as “not conventional kids, who can get good SAT scores and who might be cyber geniuses.”
“And if you could find a way to light the torch for him, he might become the guy who saves us from a cyber-attack,” he said.
“The Youth Futures Commission is a broader initiative than just cyber, but it is really designed to identify the kids at risk and show them the right path. The components with jobs and with cyber are a part of that, it’s understanding that there may be a connection to make western Pennsylvania the go-to place for cyber like it is a go-to place for Marcellus shale right now,” Hickton explained. “And that might come together with kids who are absent or truant from school because they just cannot connect.”
Spearheading youth development programs would appear to depart from traditional U.S. attorney responsibilities to defend Americans’ civil rights, protect citizens from terrorism, and to uphold the U.S. Constitution. But as Hickton sees it, the goals are the same.
“I have my responsibilities to bring the cases and enforce the law, but in my view, to do this job correctly, you have a broader mission and that is to ensure freedom and justice, by enforcing the law and protecting the public welfare,” he said. “That’s how I see it. And what good do I do, really, if all I do is just hammer criminals and bring drug prosecutions if I don’t recognize that maybe we need to go and find out who are the church leaders and how can they help, who are the dedicated community activists?
“This is, in my humble opinion, one of the best public positions to do public good. We have a broad mission, we establish priorities, our job is to allocate the resources, and both the money and the people in the office, to best protect the public welfare.”