Edit 4/4/08: Welcome to Dubious Quality readers, and best birthday wishes to Bill Harris.
Last night I went to the annual former Assistant United States Attorney reception. They held it at the California Club this year. The California Club is a very old-line affair on Flower near the library. Imagine a mid-80s Rodney Dangerfield movie in which Rodney's character causes havoc by being boorish in a hoity-toity club. The California Club is like that, only even whiter and with an even bigger stick up its ass. The view on the third floor terrace is great, though.
The reception was a good time. They ditched the sit-down dinner and speeches, which was perfect, because all everyone wants to do is drink and talk. I chatted up some judges, congratulated the new Deputy A.G. for Tax (nominated that day), got inside info on the split of a competing white collar boutique, and talked over old times.
The best part was the annual retelling of the greatest prosecutor practical joke ever, played by one of my friends against another of my friends. One's a judge now and the other a respectable in-house counsel, so I'll call them Bert and Ernie.
Bert, Ernie and I were all at U.S. Attorney's office together in 1996. That year we were all in the Complaints section. Complaints handles criminal complaints against minor cases, minor indictments, search warrants, and routine legal advice to federal agents. As an AUSA in complaints, once a week you were on "phone duty" — meaning that for 24 hours you had to wear a beeper and answer any legal questions and requests for advice from any federal agent calling in the entire Central District of California (7 counties and tens of millions of people). Phone duty was stressful, as the calls piled up fast and many agents had dumb, difficult, or incomprehensible questions, and tended to be impatient with lawyers. Often we gave agents authorization to move forward with various law enforcement methods.
So one night Bert is on phone duty. Ernie gets in his car on the 10 freeway, rolls down the window to get a lot of wind noise, and calls the phone duty number. He gets connected with Bert.
Bert, I might point out, is very very smart, but a bit of a straight arrow. Ernie is smart but a character.
The conversation goes like this:
Bert: This is Bert. I'm the AUSA on duty. How can I help you?
Ernie: Yes, this is Special Agent Ron Wilson of the DEA. I need a clearance.
Bert: What kind of clearance?
Ernie: We're in a DEA plane pursuing a drug courier plane. We've pursued it over the Mexican border into California. We have reason to believe that it's carrying a payload of hundreds of kilos of cocaine. The plane has not responded to our hails. I need authorization to splash it.
Ernie: I need authorization to shoot the plane down.
Bert: You want to … you need me to ….. Wait a minute. I don't think I can give you authorization to shoot down planes.
Ernie: I think we can put it down with minimum civilian collateral damage.
Bert: [Panicking] Wait, wait. Uh … is it …. do you….. (here Bert is desperately paging through the phone duty manual, hoping to find the section that deals with shooting down drug planes)
Ernie: I need an authorization immediately.
Bert: You have to wait! I …. uh … I need to call my supervisor .. you have to give me a chance to….
Ernie: No! There's no time! I need an answer now!
Bert: Please! I need to check on …
Ernie: No time! We are bingo fuel! He's pulling away! Can I take the shot??? CAN I TAKE THE SHOT???
Bert: Oh, God, you have to wait, I have to call someone.
Ernie: [Dropping into his normal voice] OK, that's cool. Hey, Bert, are you going to Bob's party tonight?
Bert: You BASTARD!
Needless to say, it is a legendary tale in the office.
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