Politicians may offer tempting targets

DiBiagio: The nominee for federal prosecutor plans to pursue wrongdoing by public officials.

The Prosecutor

September 09, 2001|By Gail Gibson | By Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

THOMAS M. DiBiagio, nominated by the White House last week to be Maryland's next U.S. attorney, has said he plans to emphasize the basics, with pursuit of public corruption at the top of the list.

On that count alone, he would be reviving an old, but lately dormant, tradition.

For more than two decades, beginning in the early 1960s, the Maryland U.S. attorney's office gained national notice for putting its considerable federal resources to work uncovering wrongdoing of public figures in a state long rife with political corruption. A governor, a U.S. senator, congressmen, state legislators and other state and local officials - no one of prominence or obscurity in state politics was spared from harsh scrutiny.

The trend started well before Watergate, although the most prominent official caught by prosecutors here happened to be President Richard M. Nixon's vice president. Spiro T. Agnew, former Baltimore County executive and Maryland governor, resigned as vice president Oct. 10, 1973, the day he pleaded no contest in Baltimore's federal courthouse to tax evasion charges stemming from bribes he had accepted.

It continued well after. Former Gov. Marvin Mandel was forced from office and convicted of mail fraud and racketeering in 1977. (The conviction was overturned on a technicality, after he had spent time in prison.)

For years, Baltimore's federal prosecutors kept landing big names. Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson. Anne Arundel County Executive Joseph W. Alton Jr. Baltimore City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky. Former state Sens. Michael B. Mitchell and Clarence M. Mitchell III.

In the 1990s, the fish seemed to have become smaller, raising the unlikely possibility that graft was gone, or that it was still around but nobody big was getting caught.

"The national reputation of this office for excellence and nonpartisanship was celebrated in the 1960s and 1970s, and it has continued forward, but I'm afraid it's been lost in the last eight years," said George Beall, a Republican who was U.S. attorney when the office pursued Agnew. "That storied tradition has dissipated."

DiBiagio's predecessor, Democrat Lynne A. Battaglia, was there for most of the last eight years, serving from 1993 until January, when she was confirmed to a seat on the Maryland Court of Appeals.

During her tenure, prosecutors won convictions against two prominent Annapolis lobbyists, Bruce C. Bereano and Gerard E. Evans. Yet, her other successes typically came against lesser-known figures and in different kinds of cases - violent drug conspiracies, Internet stalking crimes, pervasive property flipping schemes.

Battaglia's office failed to secure a conviction against the sole high-profile elected official to stand trial during her years. A federal jury deadlocked last year on corruption charges against Del. Tony E. Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat. Battaglia decided against retrying the case, saying it was "not in the best interest of justice."

An investigation in 1998 of former state Sen. Larry Young - DiBiagio, coordinated the federal grand jury probe - was moved to state court, where Young, also a Baltimore Democrat, was indicted on bribery charges and acquitted by a jury in Annapolis.

The difference between then and now, say observers and those who have served in the office, is a combination of changing political and criminal landscapes.

"The Maryland of today compared with the Maryland of 1961, when I was in, is totally different," said Joseph D. Tydings, a former top federal prosecutor who also served a term in the U.S. Senate beginning in 1964. "It's not the same sort of environment. When I was U.S. attorney, some of the things that were going on were just incredible."

Not everyone agrees. Stephen H. Sachs, a Democrat who became the U.S. attorney in 1967 with Tydings' backing, said he doubts that Maryland politics are inherently cleaner.

"It just seems to me a presumption that history suggests would be a mistake," said Sachs, who went on to serve two terms as Maryland attorney general. Still, he said, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of the office by the names on its conviction rolls.

"You can't always judge by whether there's a big, glitzy headline case," Sachs said. "There are investigations that go on that for whatever reason - the evidence isn't there or the witnesses aren't there - you don't bring the case."

The spreading drug culture in Baltimore and its resulting violence also have forced the U.S. attorney to play an ever-increasing role in curbing street crimes that traditionally were the sole realm of state prosecutors. The dynamic, spurred partly by political pressure at the federal and local levels, played out in major urban centers across the country. But it was particularly keenly felt in Baltimore.

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