By Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 15, 2007
A federal judge ordered Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff to surrender in six to eight weeks to begin serving his 30-month prison term, increasing the pressure for President Bush to decide soon whether he will pardon the only administration official prosecuted in a White House leak investigation.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said both the law and his own sense of fairness required that he reject I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's request to remain free while appealing his conviction for perjury and obstruction of the leak investigation, an approach that could have deferred the pardon question for years.
Walton said his decision was based on what he considers to be the slight chance Libby will succeed in having his conviction overturned, and his belief that the court cannot have one set of standards for well-connected, white-collar criminals and another for other criminals also about to lose their freedom.
"Clearly, under the statute, I'm required to detain him," Walton said before delivering his decision. "And I just think blue-collar criminals are entitled to the same kind of justice as white-collar criminals."
Libby remained stoic as Walton announced his decision, while his wife, Harriet Grant, wiped away tears. Two of his attorneys, who had seemed resigned to getting bad news throughout the two-hour hearing, shook their heads ruefully. They later vowed to file an emergency appeal to seek a delay in Libby's reporting to prison.
Unless Walton's decision is overturned swiftly by a higher court, Bush will face a choice between allowing a loyal member of his administration to go to prison and reaping the political consequences of pardoning a convicted felon who was once a trusted adviser to his vice president.
As president and as the governor of Texas before that, Bush has been sparing in granting pardons and has typically done so only after those involved served partial sentences. But he is under substantial pressure from conservatives who are indignant that Libby was convicted of lying in an investigation that never charged anyone with the illegal leak of information.
"Scooter Libby still has the right to appeal, and therefore the president will continue not to intervene in the judicial process," said White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino. "The president feels terribly for Scooter, his wife and their young children, and all that they're going through."
The judge indicated he would not be swayed by any form of public pressure in the high-profile case. More than 160 people wrote to him, mostly Libby's friends, pleading for leniency. But Walton ruled last week that Libby should serve 30 months in prison -- rather than the probation he sought.
Yesterday, Walton said that since that ruling, he had received a series of "angry, harassing" letters from citizens. Some threatened harm to the judge and his family. "Obviously, I find that very troubling," Walton told the prosecutor and Libby's attorneys. "Those types of things cannot and will not have an impact on my decision."
Walton also expressed irritation at a six-page brief filed last week by a dozen prominent constitutional scholars urging that Libby remain free pending appeal, on grounds that the prosecution lacked proper legal authority. The brief from the group, which included Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz but was dominated by conservative legal luminaries, including former Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork, was "not persuasive" and bordered on insulting, Walton said.
"The submission was not something I would expect from a first-year law student," a frowning Walton told Libby's new appellate attorney, Lawrence Robbins. "It appeared to be produced . . . for the sole purpose of throwing their names out there so somehow I'd feel pressure."
After yesterday's hearing, Libby and his wife and two lead attorneys were escorted by U.S. marshals through a back entrance of the courtroom for processing by federal probation officials; they left the building about 30 minutes later. In coming days, the Bureau of Prisons will recommend a prison, probably a minimum-security camp within driving distance of Washington, where Libby can serve his sentence.
In March, a federal jury found Libby guilty of four felonies for lying to FBI agents and the grand jury that investigated the leak of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. The jury convicted Libby of two perjury counts and one count each of obstructing justice and making false statements about when and how he learned Plame's identity -- and what he told journalists about her.
The investigation, led by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, focused on whether senior Bush officials broke the law by telling journalists about Plame's classified employment by the CIA. The first public disclosure was in a column by Robert D. Novak that appeared after Plame's husband published a critique of the Iraq war. Novak heard the information from presidential adviser Karl Rove and then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage.
The probe uncovered evidence that Cheney personally instructed Libby and other aides to seek out reporters to rebut the critique from Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, but Fitzgerald said that Libby's lies about what he knew about Plame and what he said to reporters obstructed the effort to determine who was behind the leaks regarding Plame.
Libby's attorneys unsuccessfully argued that he had innocently misremembered his conversations about Plame because he was busy with more important national security work.