I was hooked as soon as I began binge watching the series Billions, currently in its sixth season on Showtime. Actor Paul Giamatti stars as a powerful US Attorney for the Southern District of New York going after corrupt corporate fraudsters.
It’s a crime show about white-collar criminals, that does not focus on car chases, gun battles, and murderers.
Nice! Billions is exactly the kind of crime fiction I love to read, watch, and write. Seasons one and two of this series are perfect for an accuracy review of FBI policies and procedures.
Here’s the IDMb plot summary: U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades goes after hedge fund king Bobby “Axe” Axelrod in a battle between two powerful New York figures.
Billions overflows with drama and conflict generated by people consumed with greed and self-serving motives to gain as much power as possible. That description works for the bad guy billionaire, as well as the ethically challenged “good guy” federal prosecutor.
As much as I enjoy the characters and plots, I have noted several creative compromises in the fictional interaction between the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) and the FBI. In the first season, the US Attorney and his Deputy consistently direct the activity of the agents, ordering them when and how to conduct interviews and surveillances. The plot relegates the FBI to a secondary role in the investigation. That’s not how it works.
In some local municipalities, detectives are assigned to the district attorney’s (DA) office and work under the direction of an assistant DA.
The FBI is its own entity.
In the federal system, FBI agents work with, not for, prosecutors known as Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSA).
Basically, the FBI investigates, and the USAO prosecutes. However, they consult often on the merits of a case and the status of the investigation. The FBI’s job is to gather the facts and evidence, and present the results to the local USAO. The AUSA assigned to the case considers whether probable cause exists and if all the elements of the crime have been presented, before deciding to bring file charges and take the case to trial.
By season 2 of Billions, the agents aren’t even in the room when witnesses are disposed or informants are wired up. Chuck Rhoades and his assistant federal prosecutors are running all operations. The FBI only arrives when the US Attorney commands them to put on their navy blue windbreakers with the gold FBI letters to conduct a search or make an arrest. And when they arrive at the search location, Chuck Rhoades is at the front, leading them through the corporation’s double doors.
That’s another misconception, that prosecutors go out in the field with agents to take part in investigations, searches, and arrests.
FBI agents exclusively carry out all investigative operations and most interviews. Agents and prosecutors participate in some scheduled interviews together, especially proffers and witness preparations sessions. However, with few exceptions, such as being present at an off-site command post to prepare contemporaneous warrants needed for a search or takedown, when the FBI conducts its typically early morning raids the AUSA is safe and sound back at his or her office (or home asleep).
I assume the writers made these changes to give the main characters more to do in each episode and, as I always say, the most important thing is the story. So, despite the creative compromises made to provide more scene time for the lead characters of the series—the prosecutors, Billions is an entertaining show and I like it!
But after watching, please don’t apply to become a federal prosecutor because you want to investigate cases. That role’s reserved for agents and detectives, not lawyers.
Billions is currently streaming on Showtime. Watch the official trailer here.
In Chapter 11 – FBI Agents Work For Federal Prosecutors of FBI Myths and Misconceptions: A Manual For Armchair Detectives, I include more details about the relationship between the FBI and the USAO.
By the way, I’m interested in recording an episode on FBI Retired Case File Review where the FBI case agent and prosecutor review their case together. Got a case suggestion where, like in the TV show Law & Order, we can showcase the dichotomy between the investigation and prosecution of a federal crime? Let me know.