U.S. attorney says defense of gun policy was not Ehrlich slam

Dibagio says friendship trumps their differences

October 05, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said yesterday that his angry defense of his office's efforts to reduce city gun violence was not directed Thursday at Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., but at those who have used the issue to drive a wedge in the two men's long friendship.

"What I care about is that people who have no idea what we're doing here in the U.S. attorney's office are criticizing us to gain some political advantage," DiBiagio said in an interview. "They are interfering with a friendship I've had for 15 years -- a friendship I value more than this job."

DiBiagio delivered an unexpected and heated defense of his work to combat gun violence at a Thursday news conference, where he also announced a 10-year prison sentence in the high-profile case against Eric D. Stennett, the Baltimore teen-ager who had been previously acquitted in the death of a city police officer.

In his remarks, DiBiagio said federal prosecutors in Baltimore were reaching beyond the narrow parameters of the "Project Exile" program, which targets felons caught illegally carrying guns in Richmond, Va. Ehrlich, a Republican now running for governor, for years has pushed federal prosecutors in Baltimore to adopt "Project Exile."

DiBiagio did not refer to Ehrlich by name on Thursday, but referred to a "15-year friendship that has been put in jeopardy." The two men have been close since both were young lawyers in Baltimore, and it was Ehrlich who lobbied the White House to appoint DiBiagio to the U.S. attorney's post.

In a more expansive explanation yesterday, the prosecutor said his remarks were aimed at The Sun and individuals who he said have turned a narrow difference between the two men into a political issue.

"It appears that the substance of what we're doing is irrelevant," DiBiagio said.

DiBiagio's remarks were triggered by a question posed by a newspaper editorial writer at last week's gubernatorial debate between Ehrlich and Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Ehrlich was asked whether he would try as governor to implement Project Exile at the state level if federal prosecutors did not adopt it.

The prosecutor has said that unlike in Richmond, "felon-in-possession" cases typically will be tried at the federal level only if the defendant faces a longer prison term than in state court. He has acknowledged that would mean fewer firearm cases, but said his office is instead concentrating on convicting violent, well-orchestrated drug gangs and criminals caught carrying guns while committing other crimes -- a pairing that means longer federal prison sentences.

Ehrlich has called for DiBiagio to increase the number of routine firearm cases he pursues, but has also praised the other work of the office. Ehrlich and DiBiagio have not spoken since the prosecutor was sworn into office last year to avoid any appearance of undue influence.

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