Detroit 'Sleeper Cell' Prosecutor Faces Probe
Sunday, November 20, 2005
DETROIT -- Once trumpeted as one of the Justice Department's significant triumphs against terrorism, the case targeting the so-called "Detroit sleeper cell" began less than a week after the attack on the World Trade Center. It was only after a jury convicted two men of supporting terrorism that the flimsiness of the government's case became clear.
As hidden evidence spilled out and the Justice Department abandoned the effort, federal investigators began to wonder whether the true conspiracy in the case was perpetrated by the prosecution.
Now a federal grand jury in Detroit is investigating whether the lead prosecutor, Richard Convertino, or anyone else should be indicted for unfairly tipping the scales.
It is a highly unusual case. No charges have been brought and many details remain secret, but information in public documents and testimony in U.S. District Court in Detroit suggest an effort by federal prosecutors and important witnesses to mislead defense lawyers and deceive the jury. U.S. District Judge Gerald E. Rosen said the government acted "outside the Constitution."
Rosen and Justice Department investigators concluded last year that the prosecution stuck doggedly to its theory in defiance of plausible explanations and advice from other U.S. government officials. Records suggest prosecutors withheld evidence that cast doubt on their conclusions, even when ordered by superiors to deliver documents to the defense.
Convertino, who resigned from the Justice Department earlier this year to practice law in Michigan, has denied wrongdoing. He sued former Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and other superiors, accusing them of mismanaging anti-terrorism efforts and retaliating against him for testifying to Congress about those efforts. His attorneys contend that Convertino was no renegade and was closely supervised by Washington.
It would be "extremely rare for a prosecutor to face criminal charges for misconduct," said former D.C. public corruption prosecutor Randall D. Eliason. "The key is going to be showing deliberate and willfully corrupt misconduct, as opposed to somebody who was pushing the envelope and got carried away."
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth threw out the retaliation claim in Convertino's civil lawsuit in October, saying federal court was not the proper venue. He allowed another portion of Convertino's case to proceed, though he has granted a delay while the Detroit grand jury investigation is underway.
The case of the sleeper cell that wasn't began on Sept. 17, 2001, when federal agents searching for a suspect named Nabil al-Marabh instead found three men in a Detroit apartment where al-Marabh had once lived. Among their possessions were fake identity documents, Islamic fundamentalist cassette tapes and a videotape with footage of tourist sites.
Prosecutors charged four men -- Karim Koubriti, Ahmed Hannan, Farouk Ali-Haimoud and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi -- with conspiring to help terrorists. Convertino and his principal chief government witness, FBI agent Paul George, believed they had cracked an "operational combat cell" of Islamic terrorists.
Convertino told a jury when the trial began in March 2003 that the men were a "shadowy group" that was "planning, seeking direction, awaiting the call." The most important piece of evidence was a day planner that included a pair of sketches.
To the prosecution, they were the maps of a terrorist. The defense dismissed them as doodles.