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Attorneys enhancing justice abroad

Utahns, others go far in U.S. program

Call it, as Felice Viti does, a "Peace Corps for lawyers."

To the Utah prosecutor, the U.S. Department of Justice program that sent him to Bosnia for six months is much like the federal agency that directs scores of humanitarian volunteers to developing countries every year.

Viti spent half of 2000 in Bosnia, teaching law enforcers how to incorporate elements of the United States' criminal justice system into their own. The former FBI agent focused on teaching Bosnians how to involve all key players, from investigators to prosecutors, in large-scale criminal investigations.

"I really enjoyed my experience," Viti said. "I learned a lot of things about relationships and countries, and how lucky we are in the United States."

It's a lesson many federal prosecutors are learning these days, as handfuls of attorneys from the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah sign up for similar overseas missions.

After going on short-term assignments in Malaysia and Armenia, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Thorley was approached by the Justice Department to travel to Paraguay and work on counterterrorism efforts in the region. One year into the assignment, Thorley has helped draft legislation and changes to Paraguay's criminal code to more effectively track and prosecute the movement of funds believed to be used in domestic and international terrorism.

Thorley's expertise in crimes involving money laundering, gleaned from his experience in Utah, and his ability to speak Spanish, the result of a long-ago mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, made him a perfect fit for the assignment.

And when he returns next August, Thorley will bring back international experience and understanding that cannot be replicated any other way, said his boss, U.S. Attorney Paul Warner.

"It may not be anything concrete that I can say: 'Because he did this, he did this better,' " Warner said. "But I have an intuitive sense that they are better prosecutors. They have a better base of judgment to make decisions from, and that benefits everybody."

He said it's worth the cost of losing an attorney for up to two years.

"It brings a diversity of experience to the office that makes us unique," he said. "And I think this is a morale enhancer. It makes people feel good to know they have an opportunity like this."

For a U.S. Attorney's Office with only 40 prosecutors, Utah sends a respectable number of attorneys into the program, technically titled the Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training, said Beth Truebell, program manager of liaison and public information for OPDAT.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Lunnen spent three years living in Bogota, Colombia, working with the government there and serving as a liaison between federal and state agencies on large-scale narcotics investigations.

Two years later, Lunnen regularly returns to Colombia — as well as Bolivia, Chile, Peru and the Dominican Republic — to teach prosecutors how to conduct trials under the American style of criminal justice.

Upon the request of the foreign governments and the U.S. State Department, OPDAT sends federal prosecutors into countries with three goals in mind — to aid in legislative reform, increase the skills of prosecutors, investigators and judges, and to ensure the countries are complying with international models and standards of criminal justice, Truebell said.

"It encourages international cooperation because a lot of crimes that are being committed these days know no borders," she said.

The program is not, Truebell emphasized, about "trying to make whatever foreign government follow our lead. That is not the case at all. What we are there to do is to help them improve their justice system."

Resident legal advisers introduce elements of the American justice system, such as jury trials or plea bargains, and help foreign governments fit those concepts into their particular system.

"We don't force them," she said. "If they're interested, we show them how it's done."

If Lunnen's experience is any indication, they definitely are interested. He can easily teach for eight or nine hours a day, and then stay around an extra two hours answering questions.

"It's hard work, just because they want to know so much," Lunnen said. "They're great students, they just eat it up."

Perhaps the most difficult aspect to participating in OPDAT is the decision to move one's family to a foreign, and sometimes unstable, country. Lunnen participated in several large busts — like the time he helped seize $35 million in cash — and became a familiar face to high-profile international drug dealers.

"I felt like it was pushing the envelope a little bit," he said.

Still, Lunnen said his wife, who worked for the U.S. Embassy, and three children flourished in Colombia.

Thorley, too, said he and his wife had qualms about picking up and moving to Paraguay for an extended period of time. Accepting the assignment meant placing their two school-age children, a daughter in high school and son in fifth grade, in a small, largely Spanish-speaking school.

However, he said, the children have adjusted well and are quickly picking up the language. Thorley, whose Spanish skills had gone largely unused, and his wife are also doing well in the South American country.

"The experience has opened all our eyes for good," Thorley said.