Md. Prosecutor Accused Of Playing Politics
By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2004; Page B01
The chairman of Maryland's Democratic Party called yesterday for U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio to step down after a report that the prosecutor had asked his staff to produce three "front-page" indictments in public corruption or white-collar crime cases by early November.
Party Chairman Isiah Leggett said DiBiagio, a Republican appointee, had "lost all credibility" and has used his office as "a political weapon."
"What he's done is deplorable," said Leggett, who is also a professor at Howard University School of Law. "It is clearly partisan. This guy should go, and he should go soon."
The criticism was rejected by several prominent defense lawyers and former federal prosecutors, who said DiBiagio's message to his staff -- contained in a meeting agenda and two e-mails disclosed yesterday in the Baltimore Sun -- simply underscored his long-held passion for combating public corruption.
In the agenda for a May staff meeting, DiBiagio set out several goals to be accomplished by Nov. 6, four days after the general election. Among them were improving relations with the FBI and obtaining "Three 'Front-Page' White Collar/Public Corruption Indictments," the Sun reported.
DiBiagio declined to comment yesterday.
In an e-mail to prosecutors July 1, DiBiagio described a municipal corruption indictment in Philadelphia. "Why aren't we doing cases like this," he wrote in the e-mail quoted in the Sun. "Am I the only one embarrassed by the fact that this Office has not convicted an elected official of corruption since 1988?"
Two days later, he wrote again, saying that the earlier e-mail had sent the wrong message and explaining that he was frustrated and had hoped to move faster.
When DiBiagio was appointed in 2001, former Baltimore U.S. attorney George Beall counseled him to restore the office's tradition of investigating public corruption, Beall said yesterday. DiBiagio has since spoken of "embedded corruption" in Maryland and has described such cases as a top priority.
Although he has convicted a former superintendent of the state police, Edward T. Norris, and is now trying a former chairman of the state university system's Board of Regents, Nathan A. Chapman, neither man was elected and neither was charged with abusing those offices.
Beall, whose office prosecuted former governor Spiro T. Agnew when he was vice president, defended DiBiagio yesterday, saying the prosecutor faces pressure from a variety of sectors and must be out in front "leading the troops."
"I see nothing extraordinary about the U.S. attorney's efforts to build a fire under his corruption team," Beall said.
Leggett said the documents confirmed what he and other critics already believed of DiBiagio: that he wanted headlines and wanted to indict "most notably" Democratic officials. The prosecutor drew criticism two years ago when he launched an investigation into Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's signature crime-fighting agency in the middle of the lieutenant governor's campaign for governor.
Townsend called the probe "political garbage," but DiBiagio ultimately won an indictment of the agency's former director, Stephen P. Amos, on charges of misspending $6.3 million in grant money. He is awaiting trial.
Beall and other former prosecutors and defense lawyers dismissed the criticism and said Leggett's charge appeared to be politically motivated.
Still, another former prosecutor, Gregg L. Bernstein, said he had never heard of a prosecutor demanding indictments based on the headlines they might garner.
"When you consider the tremendous power that federal prosecutors have over people's lives, you want to be damn sure those decisions are based on facts and evidence," Bernstein said.
The Department of Justice did not return calls for comment.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company