Job places DiBiagio in politicians' crosshairs

U.S. attorney criticized because of ties to Ehrlich

August 02, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

When he was picked for the job last summer, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio made clear that one of his top priorities would be investigating public corruption: Those are the cases, he said, "that if we don't do them, they don't get done."

Maryland's chief federal prosecutor was reminded this week that those also are the cases that can bring the greatest heat.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend called a federal probe of her crime-control office "political garbage" and accused DiBiagio of conspiring with Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., her likely gubernatorial opponent, to hurt her campaign.

Townsend's remarks were a direct attack on the steely independent streak that DiBiagio has cultivated in his first year on the job. Appointed by the Bush administration at the urging of Ehrlich, DiBiagio quickly split with his friend and political ally on the high-profile issue of gun-crime prosecutions and refused to back down even after stinging criticism from Baltimore's mayor.

Now, DiBiagio finds himself a central figure in the heated governor's race. Former federal prosecutors in Maryland and elsewhere said he should brace for what could be an onslaught of criticism as the investigation continues.

"If public officials find themselves in the crosshairs of an investigation that is politically sensitive, the knee-jerk response is always to attack the prosecutor - it's predictable," said George Beall, who served as Maryland U.S. attorney in the 1970s when the office prosecuted then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.

Joseph Whittle, a lawyer in Louisville, Ky., was a Republican U.S. attorney in 1990 when federal authorities launched a broad public corruption probe in heavily Democratic Kentucky that ended with 20 convictions, including 15 former or sitting state lawmakers.

Whittle said the newspaper editorial pages at first were quick to dismiss the probe as politically motivated. When it ended five years later, Whittle said, the same writers praised him for helping clean up a deeply corrupted state capital.

"I wish I had those two editorials framed side by side," said Whittle, who said he simply ignored the critics. "Most anyone who rises to the level of a U.S. attorney, they're professional enough and experienced enough; they're going to let the chips fall where they may."

Going after the big fish

DiBiagio has shown a willingness to do just that.

In interviews, the Parkville attorney has unflinchingly dismissed suggestions that outside pressures could reorder his plan to go after big fish - major white-collar fraud, serious violent crime and political wrongdoing.

"One thing is completely understood," DiBiagio said early this year. "I run the U.S. attorney's office."

This week, Ehrlich called on DiBiagio to launch a 180-day period during which federal prosecutors would focus intensely on firearm violations. Ehrlich released the letter publicly; DiBiagio did not respond to the Republican candidate any more than to the Democratic lieutenant governor's attacks.

The prosecutor has declined to comment this week on the federal investigation of juvenile program grants distributed by the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which reports to Townsend.

Officials with the state office have acknowledged receiving a federal grand jury subpoena for documents related to a $503,000 federal grant awarded last year to a Prince George's County project with ties to state Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah and Del. Joanne C. Benson, both Democrats.

It is unclear why federal authorities are investigating the grants. Ehrlich has flatly rejected Townsend's claim that the investigation was politically motivated.

The 2nd District congressman said he has not had any contact with DiBiagio since the prosecutor was sworn in late last year. Ehrlich said he knew nothing about the grand jury probe until news reports about it this week.

Democrats' foil

As the sole Republican to hold a statewide office in Maryland, DiBiagio has served as an easy foil for Democrats as well as a surrogate for political attacks on Ehrlich. But the political minefields of his job have been unfamiliar territory for DiBiagio, 42, who spent nearly nine years as a front-line federal prosecutor in Baltimore and two years as a corporate defense attorney at the Washington, D.C., offices of Dyer, Ellis and Joseph.

DiBiagio was relatively unknown outside legal circles before he was appointed to be U.S. attorney. He has long been a friend of Ehrlich, but DiBiagio's political activity is limited to modest donations to Ehrlich's four congressional campaigns - about $850 since 1994, well below the $2,000 limit per election cycle.

Early success

Sworn in days after the terror attacks Sept. 11, DiBiagio's first weeks in the office were consumed by the subsequent investigation and increased counterterrorism efforts. But he also quickly set out to refocus the office on pursuing major federal crimes.

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