DiBiagio is likely Bush nominee

Former prosecutor said to be choice for U.S. attorney

May 23, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Thomas M. DiBiagio, a white-collar crime defense attorney who spent nine years prosecuting federal crimes in Baltimore, is the White House's apparent choice to be Maryland's next U.S. attorney.

The nomination could occur as early as this week. If confirmed, DiBiagio, 40, would become the only Republican in a statewide post in Maryland and the point man for President Bush's justice priorities, including an emphasis on federal prosecution of gun crimes.

DiBiagio declined to comment yesterday. "I've been told by the White House ... that I'm not to say anything until they notify people of the nomination," he said.

Sources close to the nomination process said that DiBiagio had emerged as the White House's top pick from a field of three finalists. The other candidates are Robert A. Rohrbaugh, a private attorney in Bethesda, and Scott L. Rolle, the state's attorney for Frederick County.

DiBiagio has the strong backing of Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who was co-chairman of Bush's presidential campaign in Maryland. Ehrlich, a vocal critic of former Democratic U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, said yesterday he was awaiting word from the White House and could not confirm the selection.

Ehrlich said that DiBiagio, whom he has known for 20 years, was one of several well-qualified candidates recommended to the White House by his office.

"We were very confident with the strong field," Ehrlich said in an interview. "There are really fine lawyers on the list there."

The White House declined to identify or comment on potential nominees. The new administration has yet to announce nominations for any of the 94 U.S. attorney posts across the country, all of which must be confirmed by the Senate.

In Maryland, DiBiagio would succeed Battaglia, who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton and served as Maryland's top federal prosecutor for seven years. Battaglia stepped down in January after she won confirmation to a seat on the Maryland Court of Appeals.

DiBiagio, who lives in Parkton, is a partner in the white-collar crime division at Dyer, Ellis and Joseph, a Washington law firm. Before joining the firm in February last year, he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore, serving under Battaglia and former U.S. Attorney Richard D. Bennett, a Republican who hired DiBiagio in 1991.

"He's excellent on his feet, very good in the courtroom," said Bennett, now a private attorney in Baltimore and former chairman of the state Republican Party. "He's very focused, and yet he manages to see the big picture quite well."

DiBiagio is not widely known outside state legal circles, but Bennett said that would not be a liability.

"I think that job will cause you to become widely known pretty quickly," Bennett said.

DiBiagio graduated in 1985 from University of Richmond Law School. He earned an undergraduate degree in 1981 from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Since 1990, he has been an adjunct maritime law professor at University of Baltimore law school.

As an assistant federal prosecutor, DiBiagio handled several high-profile carjacking cases, including the case against Robert Lane, who was sentenced to life in prison for bludgeoning an elderly man to death during a 1998 carjacking in Bolton Hill.

DiBiagio prosecuted Anthony and Michael Zenone, Baltimore brothers convicted in 1996 after a spree of violence that ended with two murders and included three bank robberies - one during which the robbers wore presidential masks.

He also coordinated the initial federal probe of former state Sen. Larry Young - an investigation that later moved to state court, where Young was acquitted of bribery charges.

At the federal courthouse in Baltimore, DiBiagio has been rumored for months to be the front-runner to fill the U.S. attorney's job in a Bush administration.

Rohrbaugh, one of the other finalists for the job, said yesterday that he could not comment. Rolle, reached on vacation in Florida, said he had not heard that a decision had been reached.

"From what everybody tells me, Tom's the guy," Stephen M. Schenning, who has served as acting U.S. attorney since January, said this week. "So there's not a lot of mystery about that."

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