U.S. attorney stresses independence in post

DiBiagio overhauls office while avoiding political pressures

January 13, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Maryland's mild-mannered new U.S. attorney has shown flashes of an iron-willed independent streak in his first months on the job, splitting with his closest political ally on the high-profile issue of gun-crime prosecutions and refusing to change course even after public criticism from Baltimore's mayor.

Thomas M. DiBiagio, sworn in as the state's top federal prosecutor in mid-September, instead has remained focused on overhauling the office and pursuing major violent crime, political corruption and white-collar fraud cases. He has brushed aside suggestions that political pressures could reorder those priorities, saying in a recent interview, "One thing is completely understood - I run the U.S. attorney's office."

His supporters say DiBiagio's firm refusal to get caught up in a running debate with Mayor Martin O'Malley or to automatically adopt priorities favored by his political ally, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., signals the start of an independent, get-tough era in the federal prosecutor's office.

O'Malley, who has emerged as DiBiagio's most vocal critic, says the new prosecutor's approach won't do enough to help curb street violence in Baltimore. On Wednesday, the mayor questioned DiBiagio's absence at meetings of a local court reform council. O'Malley has also complained about DiBiagio's decision to emphasize complex drug and violent crime cases over weapons violations.

"We're not talking about style here; we're not talking about someone who's the new director of sanitation," O'Malley, a Democrat, said in an interview last week. "We're talking about life-and-death issues."

The public disagreement has put DiBiagio under an unusually harsh spotlight at the start of his term.

As the sole Republican to hold a statewide office in Maryland, the new prosecutor may serve as a convenient foil for Democrats, as well as a surrogate for Republican Ehrlich, who - like O'Malley - is considering a run for governor. But all of it is unfamiliar territory for DiBiagio, 41, who spent nearly nine years as a front-line federal prosecutor in Baltimore and the past two years as a corporate defense attorney in Washington.

DiBiagio is a political novice who was relatively unknown outside legal circles before President Bush appointed him to be U.S. attorney at Ehrlich's urging. Instead of seeking out political mentors, though, his first instinct has been to narrowly focus on the job.

Sworn in days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, DiBiagio's first weeks in the office were consumed by the subsequent investigation and stepped up counter-terrorism efforts across the country. But he said in an interview that he also quickly set out to recast the office as a "first-rate, independent and aggressive law firm," emphasizing the basics of federal prosecutions, with public corruption at the top of the list.

"Every U.S. attorney should have his or her perception of what is best for the office to do," said Jervis S. Finney, a Baltimore lawyer who served as U.S. attorney in the mid-1970s and who is optimistic about DiBiagio's performance in the job. "With any major prosecution effort, it's always better to pay less attention to the talk and to look at the results."

DiBiagio started a dress code for the 65 attorneys in his office, requiring business attire during workdays. He reorganized the office, designating for the first time one centralized manager to oversee criminal prosecutions. He also has told assistant prosecutors that he would be in the courtroom, too, trying cases.

At the same time, police agencies say, DiBiagio has made aggressive efforts to reach out to law enforcement. He met with supervisors and investigators at each of the federal agencies that bring cases to the U.S. District Court and delivered a blunt message: Agents should pursue broader, higher-impact cases.

He also offered help with that effort, said several investigators and agency supervisors. Agents were told that they now can pick which federal prosecutor they want to handle their cases in court, DiBiagio said. The result will be a kind of natural selection process in the office. Hard-working, well-liked prosecutors will be busy, but DiBiagio acknowledged that some attorneys in the office could find themselves with little to do.

"Some hard decisions will have to be made about their careers," he said.

Investigators also were told that they can represent cases to the prosecutor's office that had been rejected in the past. At the local level, DiBiagio told Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris that his officers could bring cases directly to his office, a change from past policy, which required city officers to team up with federal agents.

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