Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges of lying to the FBI and a grand jury about his conversations with reporters in the CIA leak investigation, and his lawyer promised to fight the accusations in a trial that could bring government secrets into open court.
"With respect, your honor, I plead not guilty," I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby told U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton during his 10-minute arraignment, his first court appearance after being indicted on five felony counts Friday. Under federal sentencing guidelines, legal experts estimate that he faces a probable sentence of two to five years if convicted.
Libby, 55, entered the courthouse on crutches because of a foot injury but came with a show of legal strength: Theodore V. Wells Jr. and William Jeffress Jr., two nationally prominent white-collar criminal defense litigators he had recently hired for his defense.
Libby resigned as Cheney's chief of staff last Friday, the same day that he was indicted on five counts of obstructing justice, perjury and making false statements in the two-year investigation of whether officials illegally disclosed the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame to the news media.
"Mr. Libby today has pled not guilty to each and every count of the indictment," Wells told a throng of reporters outside the courthouse. "He has declared to the world he is innocent. . . . He has declared he plans to fight the charges."
A trial in the matter would probably require senior administration officials to testify about their private conversations in the summer of 2003. That was when the administration grappled with how to react to the public criticism of its rationale for invading Iraq leveled by former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, and when the name of his wife, Plame, was leaked to journalists.
Wells, a partner in the New York firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, is best known for his courtroom prowess. He recently represented Philip Morris against a Justice Department racketeering lawsuit that is awaiting a judge's ruling, and won acquittals for former agriculture secretary Michael Espy and former labor secretary Raymond Donovan.
Jeffress, also a highly sought defense lawyer, won a plea bargain for a Rite Aid executive accused of accounting fraud in 2003 and acquittals for a number of public officials accused of vote-buying, money laundering and perjury, many of them in Louisiana. He works at the firm of Baker Botts LLP, where Bush family friend and former secretary of state James A. Baker III is a senior partner.
Both the prosecution and the defense in Libby's case told Walton yesterday that they expect a complex case that will be drawn out by pretrial evidentiary battles before the judge can even consider setting a trial date.
Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald warned that much of the evidence against Libby involves classified material concerning national security. Libby's lawyers must first obtain security clearances just to read the evidence Fitzgerald has gathered and to prepare their defense.
Jeffress said that there could be numerous First Amendment "issues" that may produce "protracted litigation" and delay the case. Libby's lawyers are expected to seek to review the notes, records and source information of several reporters who may be called as witnesses, several defense lawyers said, and the likely resistance from reporters and their news organizations could provide delays that help the defense.
Standing in the Ceremonial Courtroom usually reserved for weighty oral arguments before the appeals court, Libby told the judge yesterday that he was waiving his right to a speedy trial because of those complexities.
Michael J. Madigan, a former prosecutor and now a well-known criminal defense lawyer at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, praised both Wells and Jeffress as excellent choices for Libby, but he said they are joining the case with "one hand tied behind their back" because of what has already transpired in the investigation.
They enter the case "with Libby having given two different statements to the FBI and testifying twice to the grand jury, in which he contradicts three reporters and four or five of his friends in the administration," Madigan said. "If I was entering the case, I would not be really happy to have that situation."
Defendants in perjury cases often say they simply forgot about other conversations or had flawed recollections. But that strategy looks less promising for Libby, several lawyers said, because he has already given such categorical testimony suggesting that he had detailed memories of specific events. For example, Libby told the grand jury that he learned about Plame working at the CIA from NBC reporter Tim Russert in July 2003. But Fitzgerald charges that Libby learned about Plame from Cheney, the CIA and the State Department a month earlier.
"It would be difficult now to say that you didn't recall certain things when you've already testified that you did remember them," Madigan said.
Criminal defense lawyers, judges and prosecutors said the major strength of Fitzgerald's case is that he has the testimony of several administration officials who contradict Libby's accounts.
Fitzgerald has also warned White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove that he remains under investigation and could face criminal charges for false statements, sources close to Rove said.
Libby's next court date was set for Feb. 3, by which time Walton said he hopes the defense would have obtained the proper security clearances and been able to review the government's evidence.