By Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, was sentenced yesterday to 30 months in prison for lying to federal investigators about his role in the leak of a CIA officer's identity by a judge who declared the evidence against him "overwhelming" and concluded that Libby "got off course" as a White House employee.
As U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton imposed the stiff prison sentence and a $250,000 fine, he said his decision came "with a sense of sadness" because he was torn between admiration and disappointment. "I have the highest respect for people who take positions in our government and [try] . . . to protect this country," Walton said somberly.
At the same time, the judge said, "I also think it is important we expect and demand a lot from people who put themselves in those positions. Mr. Libby failed to meet the bar."
Taking a strict interpretation for a white-collar case, the judge warned that Libby is unlikely to have his conviction overturned on appeal. That means that the longtime Washington lawyer, who resigned from his White House job after being indicted in October 2005 and was free during the trial, could be imprisoned within a few weeks. Walton agreed to rule on that matter at a hearing next week.
Libby, in a brief statement to the court before hearing Walton's decision, did not follow the usual custom of seeking judicial sympathy by expressing contrition. Instead, Libby said in a soft, steady voice that "it is respectfully my hope that the court will consider, along with the jury verdict, my whole life." After thanking the judge, he returned to his seat.
A federal jury in March found Libby guilty of four felonies, including perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements to FBI agents about his contacts with reporters regarding covert CIA officer Valerie Plame. Her employment by the agency was classified until four administration officials disclosed it to reporters in the summer of 2003, after the publication of a critique of the Iraq war by Plame's husband, a former U.S. ambassador.
"My take on it," Walton said, is that the trial did not prove Libby knew that Plame worked in an undercover capacity when he disclosed her identity to several reporters. Still, the judge added, "anybody at that high-level position had a unique and special obligation before they said anything about anything associated with a national security agency [to] . . . make every conceivable effort" to verify their status before releasing information about them.
"While there is no evidence that Mr. Libby knew what the situation was, he surely did not take any efforts to find out," Walton said. "I think public officials need to know if they are going to step over the line, there are going to be consequences. . . . [What Libby did] causes people to think our government does not work for them."
Libby was the highest-ranking White House official to be convicted of a felony since several officials were implicated in the Iran-contra affair of the Reagan era two decades ago.
Libby, 56, was the only person charged in the 3 1/2 -year investigation, although the FBI uncovered evidence that three other senior administration officials had also divulged Plame's employment while discussing the critique by her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV. The others were then-deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage; Karl Rove, the chief White House political adviser; and then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald said during the trial that some of these disclosures were meant to discredit Wilson's critique by attributing to nepotism some research he did for the CIA about Iraq's nuclear program. But he emphasized that Libby's lying about his knowledge of Plame and his contacts with journalists had uniquely blocked him from learning the full truth of the episode.
"Mr. Libby lied about nearly everything that mattered," obscuring his true role in the leak and those of other officials, while forcing investigators to waste resources probing his account, Fitzgerald said in his sentencing memorandum.
Walton, who is known as a tough, "by the book" judge, essentially rejected the arguments of defense lawyers that Libby should be given probation, partly due to his otherwise unblemished government career and his contributions to counterterrorism efforts.
"It would be within your honor's discretion to give Mr. Libby credit for his exceptional public service," defense lawyer Theodore V. Wells Jr. told the court before the sentence. "This would not be giving Mr. Libby a break."
Wells also quoted from several of the more than 150 letters written by Libby's friends to the judge, urging leniency. The authors included current and former administration officials who have been close to Cheney and Libby, such as former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and former undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith, as well as prominent administration supporters at think tanks and some of Libby's former law partners.
Fitzgerald told the judge that Libby's lies had made it impossible for the public to know whether he was shielding himself or others who committed leak crimes. In court filings, Fitzgerald had stressed that Cheney was among the first people to tell Libby about Plame, and said at one point that Libby's "disclosures of information regarding Ms. Wilson's employment may have been sanctioned by the Vice President." Fitzgerald told the judge: "The sentence has to make clear and loud that truth matters and one's station in life does not."
Besides giving Libby a fairly long sentence for a case involving perjury, Walton indicated that he may buck a trend in which federal judges have increasingly let white-collar defendants in nonviolent cases postpone jail time while appealing their convictions. Federal law presumes that defendants will be jailed shortly after sentence is imposed, but allows judges to leave them free if a significant question in the trial or the prosecution would probably lead to a reversal.
But Walton said he sees no significant issues on which he believes Libby would prevail on appeal. If the defense, at next week's hearing, does not convince Walton that Libby should remain free, Libby would probably have to report to a federal prison in 45 to 60 days, legal experts said.
"You've got to admire a judge who goes by what the statute says and tells you what he thinks," said Kirby Behre, a white-collar lawyer and former prosecutor who has appeared before Walton numerous times. "I don't think I'm going out on much of a limb saying Libby will probably end up having to start his sentence."
The White House said yesterday that President Bush does not plan to intervene "now," in the middle of the appeals process.
Wilson said in a statement that he and Plame are "grateful that justice has been served." He added that "Mr. Libby benefited from the best this country had to offer: the finest schools, a lucrative career as a lawyer and many years of service in Republican administrations. That he would knowingly lie, perjure himself and obstruct a legitimate criminal investigation is incomprehensible."