Justice Dept. Rebukes U.S. Attorney in Md.
DiBiagio, Who Sought Public Corruption Indictments, Must Receive Prior Approval
By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2004; Page B01
Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio received an unusual written admonishment yesterday from superiors who ordered him not to bring new public corruption cases without their prior approval.
Officials in Washington said Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey also telephoned DiBiagio to convey displeasure with a memo in which DiBiagio urged his prosecutors to produce three "front-page" indictments by Nov. 6, four days after the presidential election.
DiBiagio, a Republican appointee, was advised by others in the Justice Department's Washington headquarters to make no effort to learn who leaked the memo and other internal documents that led to yesterday's action, the officials said.
In a letter the department released to reporters, Comey told DiBiagio that he was taking the action in order to protect the "credibility" of the office. DiBiagio was "directed, until further notice, to submit to me for review any proposed indictment in a public corruption matter. You may not bring such a case without my personal approval."
The unusual rebuke, which a former Maryland U.S. attorney described as a "slam," fueled speculation in legal circles over DiBiagio's prospects for appointment to a second term. The prosecutor has at times seemed at odds with superiors at the Department of Justice, crusading against corruption when law enforcement's declared top priority was terrorism.
Shortly after he was appointed to a four-year term by President Bush in 2001, DiBiagio said he would emphasize prosecution of white-collar crime and public corruption in the state, which has long been under Democratic control.
Although he successfully prosecuted the superintendent of the state police and currently is trying an investment banker who handled millions in state funds, DiBiagio has not brought charges against any elected official.
His office is conducting a probe of Baltimore's City Council, whose 19 members are all Democrats, and has sought documents detailing an array of financial practices.
In the letter, Comey said he had reviewed the internal documents from DiBiagio's office -- an agenda for a May staff meeting and two e-mails he sent to his prosecutors. The documents were obtained by the Baltimore Sun and were the subject of a report in the paper's Thursday's editions.
The agenda set out several goals to be accomplished by Nov. 6. Among them were improving relations with the FBI and obtaining "Three 'Front-Page' White Collar/Public Corruption Indictments," the Sun reported.
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.
The chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, Isiah Leggett, called for DiBiagio's resignation Thursday after the documents were disclosed. Leggett said the prosecutor had used his office "as a political weapon to indict innocent people for political gain."
Several prominent defense lawyers and former federal prosecutors have defended DiBiagio, saying the documents simply underscore his long-held passion for combating public corruption.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company