Justice Admits U.S. Attorney Was Forced Out
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
The Justice Department acknowledged yesterday that Thomas M. DiBiagio, the Maryland U.S. attorney who stepped down early in 2005, was forced from office and did not, as he said at the time, decide on his own to leave for personal reasons.
But the department official who asked for his resignation dismissed DiBiagio's claim in a New York Times article yesterday that he was ousted because of political pressure over public corruption investigations into the administration of then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
In fact, the Republican governor's chief legal counsel, Jervis Finney, twice contacted the Justice Department to argue in DiBiagio's behalf, said David Margolis, an associate deputy attorney general. Finney contacted the department in fall 2004, not long after DiBiagio drew a rebuke for ordering his subordinates to produce "front-page" indictments, Margolis said.
Finney, he said, "called me during this process, claiming that I was being too harsh on Tom and that Tom was being railroaded by a bunch of Democrats in the U.S. attorney's office."
Margolis said that he asked DiBiagio for his resignation because he had "lost confidence in his abilities" and that he was not aware at the time of any investigations involving the Ehrlich administration. "There were absolutely no political shenanigans," said Margolis, a 42-year department employee who oversees ethics matters.
DiBiagio, who did not return repeated calls for comment yesterday, said in 2004 that his decision to leave was driven by financial and family considerations. He told the Times that he was speaking out now because he saw similarities between his departure and the recent firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
The Bush administration has said the eight prosecutors were told to leave, all but one for performance-related reasons. However, Democrats and others have suggested evermore pointedly that politics was behind many of the dismissals.
DiBiagio said several prominent Maryland Republicans -- the Times did not name them -- had pressed him to back away from inquiries on whether associates of the governor were improperly using money from gambling interests to promote the legalization of slot machines. He said he had reported one of those conversations to an FBI official as a threat.
DiBiagio said the Justice Department offered so little support that it became "impossible for me to stay."
"I believe it was that investigation that played an integral role in what was done to me," DiBiagio told the newspaper. "I clearly got the message that I had alienated my political sponsor and I would not have any political support to stay another term. Clearly, they wanted me to leave."
The claim is extraordinary in part because of the friendship that DiBiagio and Ehrlich once shared and because Ehrlich, while he was a Republican congressman, had played a key role in securing the prosecutor's post for him. In an interview yesterday, Ehrlich said DiBiagio's comments "really came out of left field."
The former governor denied trying to influence DiBiagio's investigations or seeking his removal. "To try to tie this to slots is just crazy," Ehrlich said, and he expressed amusement over the idea that he would have held enough sway with officials in Washington to have the federal prosecutor removed.
Ehrlich also noted that he was nearly alone in publicly defending DiBiagio in summer 2004, when Democrats were calling for his resignation and editorial boards were questioning his fitness for office. "I've known him for a long time, and I think he should be given the benefit of the doubt," Ehrlich told the Baltimore Sun at the time.
Yesterday, Ehrlich acknowledged that he was dissatisfied with DiBiagio's handling, before that, of a corruption case involving Edward Norris, who was then Ehrlich's state police superintendent. But, he added, "there was nothing we could or would do about it."
Of the gambling investigation, which was closed without producing charges, Ehrlich said he recalled that one of his aides received two federal grand jury subpoenas in summer 2004. Ehrlich said he was not concerned about the investigation, and that Finney produced documents in response. "Jervy handled it, and we literally never heard anything more about it -- that was it," he said.
The public confirmation that DiBiagio was forced out adds an important coda to a turbulent period for the office. Although DiBiagio frequently declared his credo to be "justice without fear or favor," critics accused him of partisanship. Democrats, in particular, cited an investigation by DiBiagio's office that focused on then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) at the height of a tight 2002 gubernatorial contest that she lost to Ehrlich, and a federal probe of the Baltimore City Council, whose members are Democrats.
He was rebuked in July 2004 for sending a memo urging his prosecutors to obtain "Three 'Front-Page' White Collar/Public Corruption Indictments" before Nov. 6, four days after the presidential election. Although DiBiagio has said the memo was taken out of context, he was told after it was publicized that he could bring no public corruption cases without high-level approval.
Yesterday, Margolis said the memo was damaging. "A reasonable person could have concluded that he was trying to affect the outcome of an election, and we just can't have that," he said.
Margolis said DiBiagio was asked to resign after a performance evaluation of his office conducted late that year. He said the review concluded that there were "management and morale issues" in the U.S attorney's office that were related to DiBiagio's "judgment and candor" as well as his temperament.