Lawrence Leiser, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, was suspended with pay last month and ordered to vacate his office after Justice officials concluded that he had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct.
Justice officials declined to comment on the case yesterday but said that such department actions were rare, adding that only 20 federal prosecutors have faced dismissal because of courtroom misconduct.
The charges grew out of a widely publicized case in which a New York cult deprogrammer, Galen G. Kelly, was convicted in 1993 of accidentally kidnapping the roommate of a member of a religious cult.
The conviction later was overturned by a federal appeals court after defense attorneys complained that the alleged kidnapping victim was a cult member and that prosecutors withheld information that she was under criminal investigation.
Leiser, 49, former head of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, did not comment on the case yesterday. But Michael Rich, a fellow federal prosecutor who is helping Leiser to prepare an administrative appeal, sharply denied that Leiser had committed any ethical violations.
"We're going to meet these accusations head-on," Rich said, "We think we can disprove many of them and put the others in context. Once they are weighed by a fair-minded arbitrator, we think we will prevail."
Leiser was investigated by the Justice Department's office of professional responsibility after his handling of the Kelly case was rejected in a written opinion by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
The ethics office's finding, first reported in the Legal Times, will be reviewed by John Hogan, chief of staff Attorney General Janet Reno. He can approve or reject the recommendation to fire Leiser, or authorize a lesser punishment. Leiser can appeal any disciplinary action.
In interviews, both friends and opponents described Leiser as a zealous prosecutor willing to take on tough cases.
But while several lawyers said he frequently took a hard line in shielding prosecution documents from defense lawyers, some questioned whether he intentionally violated evidence disclosure rules in the Kelly case.
"You could not convince me that Larry intentionally tried to obstruct justice or withheld materials from Galen Kelly's lawyers," said Robert Stanley Powell, who represented Kelly in the final stages of his case. "What he did was a bad judgment call, but one that was not indigenous to Larry Leiser. A lot of federal prosecutors do what he did."
In the case, Kelly was seeking to lure Beth Bruckert away from a religious cult known as the Circle of Friends in May 1992. When a woman resembling Bruckert left her job, Kelly lured her into his van. The woman turned out to be Bruckert's roommate, Debra Dobkowski.
Kelly maintained that Dobkowski was a cult member seeking to set him up, by entering the van voluntarily and later claiming to have been kidnapped. Dobkowski denied in court that she had any ties to the cult-a claim that Leiser did not challenge.
The appeals court later ruled that Dobkowski's credibility was vital because she was the main prosecution witness. It also found that her testimony was "false in numerous respects and that the government at least should have known it was false."