A Vote of No Confidence
Tuesday, July 20, 2004; Page A16
THOMAS M. DIBIAGIO, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, has embarrassed his office and discredited himself by instructing his staff to produce at least three "front-page" indictments for public corruption or white-collar crimes by Nov. 6. His astonishingly inappropriate directives, contained in internal office memos disclosed by the Baltimore Sun, earned him an unusual and deserved public reprimand from his superiors in the Justice Department. In a letter released by the department, Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey ordered Mr. DiBiagio to submit "to me for review any proposed indictment in a public corruption matter." In case Mr. DiBiagio missed the point, Mr. Comey added, "You may not bring such a case without my personal approval."
It's fine that the Justice Department has taken Mr. DiBiagio to the woodshed; the question is whether that's enough. Even if one charitably ascribes no political motive to Mr. DiBiagio's exhortation, his remarks are unprofessional and poisonous. Since when do federal prosecutors set quotas and deadlines for high-profile indictments? But it's also hard to overlook the fact that he's a Republican, that most public officials in Maryland are Democrats and that, most disturbingly, his Nov. 6 target date falls four days after Election Day. Mr. DiBiagio told the Sun that the date was "arbitrary," his own shorthand for the "end of the year." The only year we know of that ends by Nov. 6 is the election year.
It's right for U.S. attorneys to investigate public corruption when the facts exist to support such investigations. Mr. DiBiagio took office in 2001 making no secret that his priority was to root out corruption, and many applauded him for that. But in a season already ripe with preelection rancor, Mr. DiBiagio has given the appearance of an excessive, irresponsible prosecutorial zeal to bring down prominent officials regardless of the evidence. He has prejudiced potential public corruption indictments from his office by inviting partisan suspicion from Maryland Democrats, who not surprisingly are convinced that he has embarked on a political vendetta. And by his incautious, impolitic comments, he has needlessly cast doubt on the credibility of an office with a proud tradition of successfully prosecuting a sitting vice president (Spiro T. Agnew, for income tax evasion, in 1973), a sitting governor (Marvin Mandel, for bribery and fraud, in 1977) and a former U.S. senator (Daniel B. Brewster, for bribery, in 1975).
In rebuking Mr. DiBiagio, the deputy attorney general went right to the point. "We can never allow political considerations -- or the perception of such considerations -- to taint the work done by our dedicated investigators and prosecutors," Mr. Comey wrote. That extraordinary public expression of no confidence casts doubt on Mr. DiBiagio's ability to do his job. And if he can't do his job, the sensible thing is to let someone who can do the job take his place.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company