By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006
A former federal prosecutor and a State Department security officer were indicted yesterday on charges that they lied during a bungled terrorism trial in Detroit and then sought to cover up their deceptions once the case began to fall apart.
Former assistant U.S. attorney Richard G. Convertino, 45, and State Department special agent Harry R. Smith III, 49, were charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements in connection with the 2003 prosecution, according to an indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in Detroit.
The charges mark the latest embarrassment for the government in a case that was once hailed by former attorney general John D. Ashcroft as one of the most important terrorism prosecutions since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It disintegrated after a federal judge ordered an investigation of Convertino's conduct.
Legal experts said yesterday that an indictment of a prosecutor for improper conduct in a federal courtroom is extraordinarily rare, if not unprecedented, in modern times.
"The charge is essentially that he prosecuted too aggressively and crossed the line," said Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor who specializes in legal ethics. "This is simply astonishing."
Convertino also is charged with presenting false information at a sentencing hearing in a separate drug case to gain a light prison term for an informant.
He resigned from the Justice Department last year and has filed a civil suit alleging that he was the target of a smear campaign by the Justice Department that resulted in the exposure of a valuable counterterrorism informant.
Convertino led the prosecution of Karim Koubriti and three other North African immigrants, who were alleged to be part of a "sleeper operational combat cell." The government gained three convictions -- including two on terrorism charges -- but they were dismissed in 2004 after the Justice Department announced it had uncovered serious prosecutorial misconduct.
A report by a special Justice Department attorney assigned to review the case found that the prosecution had failed to turn over dozens of pieces of evidence to the defense. The "pattern of mistakes and oversights," along with possible misconduct, was so egregious that the government had little choice but to withdraw its case, his report said.
William Sullivan, Convertino's attorney in the criminal case, said in a prepared statement yesterday that the indictment is "another example of government reprisal" against Convertino for his lawsuit. A federal judge in Washington threw out part of Convertino's lawsuit in October, and delayed the rest to await the outcome of the grand jury inquiry in Detroit.
"Rick Convertino is a highly decorated and veteran former prosecutor who over a period of many years acted to preserve the safety of his community," Sullivan said. "We will demonstrate that the indictment is manifestly false."
One of Smith's attorneys, Matthew Leitman of Troy, Mich., said his client is a "dedicated public servant" falsely accused of wrongdoing. "We do not believe the charges are warranted, and we look forward to vigorously defending him in court," he said.
Convertino faces up to 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine, while Smith could be sentenced to 20 years behind bars and a $750,000 penalty.
The indictment alleges that, during the trial, Convertino concealed photographs taken by Smith and another State Department staff member of Queen Alia Hospital in Jordan. Convertino had alleged that the defendants made a casing sketch of the military hospital in preparation for a terrorist attack, and Smith testified that he had no photographs with which to compare the sketches.
But Justice investigators said later that Convertino knew U.S. officials had taken numerous photographs and that "it is difficult, if not impossible, to compare the . . . sketches with the photos and see a correlation."
Smith, stationed as a security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, from 1999 to 2002, assisted in the Detroit investigation.
The indictment notably does not contain several other allegations of misconduct by Convertino that were aired in prior court proceedings, including disputes over a second sketch alleged to depict a Turkish air base and over his failure to disclose evidence undermining a key prosecution witness.
Margaret Raben, a Detroit lawyer who represented one of the defendants, Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, said the government may have purposely kept its case against Convertino narrow in an attempt to prevent him from responding with his own allegations of misconduct by higher-ranking Justice officials.
Raben said the indictment was a "vindication for the defense team," but would do little to help the former defendants in the case. One of the defendants has been deported, two others are fighting fraud charges and the fourth is living in Dearborn, Mich., with his mother.
"The reality is that the government ruined these people's lives, and there is no remedy for that," Raben said. "Rick Convertino can go to prison for the next 15 years and it won't make one bit of difference for Abdel-Ilah or any of the others."
In a second criminal case, Convertino allegedly misled a judge about the defendant's cooperation with the government and "falsely suggested" that the original prosecutor had doubts about the accuracy of the amount of drugs in the case, according to the indictment. As a result, the defendant received a prison term of eight months, rather than the 108 to 135 months outlined in sentencing guidelines.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.