Targeting violent crime

Prosecutor: The U.S. attorney handled some of the worst city cases in the past year, but expects to do more on public corruption.

January 21, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Maryland's U.S. attorney took over the office with a pledge to crack down on white-collar crime and public corruption, but his most visible mark in the past year has been against violent crime, a reflection of Baltimore's troubled streets.

Under U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, federal prosecutors repeatedly stepped in last year to handle the city's worst violent crimes, bringing charges in such high-profile cases as the arson that killed an East Baltimore family, the deadly carjacking of a Glen Burnie pharmacist and the kidnapping and killing of an 8-year-old city girl.

DiBiagio's office gained national attention for the fraud prosecution of former Allfirst Financial Inc. currency trader John Rusnak, sentenced Friday to a 7 1/2 -year prison term. But violent crime and drug cases generally have outpaced white-collar and public corruption investigations - what DiBiagio has called the cases "that if we don't do them, they don't get done."

The prosecutor and others in Baltimore's legal community say that is not surprising, in part because of the time-consuming nature of corruption investigations, and a reduced emphasis on such cases in recent years.

"The short answer to that is it simply is too early to make a judgment," said Baltimore attorney Stephen H. Sachs, who served as U.S. attorney under a Democratic administration in the late 1960s. "If there's any kind of complexity at all to these cases, and there usually is, then progress is measured in a matter of months and not weeks."

DiBiagio said he expects his office to produce significant white-collar and corruption cases during the remaining two years of his term.

"I do believe that we have laid the foundation to pursue significant public corruption in Maryland," he said. "You can't do that in one year, you can't turn around white-collar and public corruption that quickly."

Sachs and others said DiBiagio, 42, of Parkton, who took office in late 2001, is well-positioned after having hired well-credentialed assistant U.S. attorneys and demonstrated a steely independent streak through sometimes bruising public clashes.

In his first months on the job, DiBiagio split with his political ally, then-Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., on the high-profile issue of gun-crime prosecutions and refused to back down even after criticism from Mayor Martin O'Malley.

When the prosecutor's office launched the continuing investigation of a crime-control office overseen by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, she accused DiBiagio last summer of colluding with Ehrlich and dismissed the probe as "political garbage."

During the investigations of the sniper shootings in the fall, law enforcement officials, speaking anonymously, accused DiBiagio of interfering with an initial interrogation of suspects.

DiBiagio largely absorbed the hits without changing course. The result, he said in a recent interview, "should clearly, directly, unambiguously show that we are an independent office," and should help persuade sources with the kind of sensitive, inside information needed to build significant white-collar or corruption cases to work with investigators.

"I think that people who didn't know him labored under a misconception that he would kowtow to the people who helped get him in office," said Gregg L. Bernstein, a defense attorney in Baltimore and a former federal prosecutor who represents the former head of the crime-control office that came under investigation last year.

"Those of us who knew him knew that would not be the case," Bernstein said.

DiBiagio identified white-collar crime and public corruption, along with violent crimes and drug conspiracies, as his top priorities at the outset of his term. After Friday's sentencing of Rusnak, he said cases like the Allfirst fraud should demonstrate the need for federal authorities to aggressively pursue corporate and public corruption.

"It's not about a bank losing money, it's about people losing their jobs," DiBiagio said, noting extensive layoffs announced by the bank after the trading scandal.

Rusnak's case - what the prosecutor called one of the most serious white-collar crimes in the history of Maryland's federal court - attracted national attention to the U.S. attorney's office before winding down with Rusnak's sentencing.

In other cases, however, there has been little visible activity for months. The public corruption investigation launched under DiBiagio that has gained the most attention was an FBI investigation of whether employees at the crime-control agency overseen by Townsend improperly used federal crime-fighting funds to pay for political tasks or ghost employees.

After a flurry of subpoenas in the summer, the investigation largely dropped from public view at the end of the year. DiBiagio and other attorneys involved in the case declined to comment, but sources close to the probe said that it remains active.

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