Corporate lawyer gets nod as U.S. attorney

Ehrlich calls DiBiagio `right man for the job'

September 05, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A corporate defense attorney with an academic bent and few political connections, Thomas M. DiBiagio didn't expect to return when he left the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore last year after a nine-year run prosecuting violent street gangs, deadly carjackings and brazen bank robberies.

But in DiBiagio, colleagues say, a mild-mannered demeanor masks the gut instincts of a seasoned prosecutor. First approached this winter about serving as Maryland's U.S. attorney, he couldn't refuse the chance, in his words, to try to make the office a "first-rate, independent and aggressive law firm."

The White House announced yesterday that President Bush will nominate DiBiagio, 41, of Parkton, to be the state's top federal prosecutor. His name is expected to go today to the Senate, which must confirm the appointment. But the nomination is not considered controversial, and DiBiagio could begin the job in an interim role within weeks.

"No other lawyers have the kind of impact they do here," said DiBiagio, who wants the office to emphasize the basics of federal prosecutions: public corruption, white-collar crimes and complex narcotics conspiracies.

"Those are the cases that if we don't do them, they don't get done," he said.

DiBiagio is set to leave a partnership in a Washington law firm to take over the $125,700-a-year Justice Department job. The appointment, heavily supported by Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., will make DiBiagio the sole Republican serving in a statewide political office in Maryland and prove to be his first test in a public leadership position.

"It's a big challenge," said James Wyda, the federal public defender for Maryland. "I do think he's up for it. But it's a very hard job, with a lot of different constituencies looking at him and him trying to satisfy them."

As an assistant U.S. attorney during the senior Bush and Clinton administrations, DiBiagio developed a deliberate and fair-minded style handling such high-profile assignments as the federal grand jury probe of former state Sen. Larry Young, who was later charged and acquitted on state bribery charges.

Colleagues and observers say DiBiagio's experience from those years as a front-line prosecutor makes him a good choice for the Maryland post, which supervises courthouse offices in Baltimore and Greenbelt.

"I think Tom doesn't start with an idea he wants to prove," said Washington attorney Billy R. Martin, also a partner at Dyer, Ellis and Joseph, the law firm where DiBiagio has practiced since February 2000. "He starts with a problem and then works through it very methodically."

At trial, DiBiagio also demonstrated a passion for affecting lives away from the august courtrooms where he worked and an understanding of the corrosive effects of Baltimore's deep-rooted drug culture.

"You know, a lot of times when you are a prosecutor, you come into the courtroom and you are frustrated," DiBiagio told jurors in a Baltimore drug trial he prosecuted seven years ago. "This stuff is bad. It's hurting the communities. How do you get that across? How do you get beyond the nice wood paneling? The flag?"

DiBiagio had a strong conviction record at the trial level and on appeal. But in that 1994 drug case, he was rebuked for his zeal in one regard by an appellate panel.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a pointed May 1996 opinion that DiBiagio had too forcefully vouched for prosecution witnesses in closing arguments. He had built the complex case largely around the testimony of other individuals involved in the drug trade.

"I am telling you, they are bad, but they are not liars," he had told jurors in a clipped cadence. "Too much to lose to be liars."

The judges upheld the convictions, but they wrote, "The government should not take this decision as a license to resort to argument such as that made by the prosecutor in this case."

As U.S. attorney, DiBiagio would oversee an office of 65 lawyers and an equal number of support staff - his first role as a public leader. By his own admission, one of his first steps as U.S. attorney-designate proved to be a mistake that ruffled the feathers of some lawyers inside the office he is to head.

In early July, he had an e-mail memo circulated throughout the office that outlined changes he planned in its management structure. The memo proposed combining several small, themed units under one central supervisor, and it spurred speculation that DiBiagio would de-emphasize areas that were assigned a specific supervisor under former U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia - environmental issues, for instance, or narcotics and violent crimes.

DiBiagio said in an interview that he has no such plans. He said he hoped the new structure would allow assistant prosecutors more variety in their caseload. He called the memo premature and a mistake, but said it proved helpful in two ways:

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