DiBiagio making good on a promise

Crackdown: The U.S. attorney says his quest to root out public corruption is not personal or politically motivated.

October 31, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Two years after he took office with a pledge to crack down on public corruption, Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio is steadily making good on the promise - launching probes that have touched city and state government and some well-known figures, but also have brought criticism that he is overreaching or playing politics.

The most recent example came this month, with the disclosure that federal authorities had subpoenaed Baltimore City Council members in an apparent investigation of hiring practices and relationships with local businesses. Investigators asked for five years of records, suggesting a probe wide-ranging and far from complete.

Almost immediately, the inquiry itself came under attack. Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young called it "racially motivated," while council member Robert W. Curran compared it to the recently revealed FBI bugging of Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street's office. Former prosecutors say the response was predictable and, in DiBiagio's case, familiar.

"These are high-risk undertakings, and the criticism sounds very familiar," said George Beall, who served as Maryland U.S. attorney in the 1970s when the office prosecuted then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. "The criticism is that it's partisan politics, or it's racism, or it's a witch hunt. That's a familiar refrain. But he's apparently steeled himself to that criticism and is willing to take a look at these cases."

In an interview Oct. 24, DiBiagio declined to confirm or discuss any of the inquiries, but acknowledged that his office has a "number of very substantial investigations under way." The state's chief federal prosecutor, generally wary about publicly discussing his office's operations, flatly rejected suggestions that public corruption probes would be driven by anything other than the facts.

Not about politics

"The public should know that these investigations aren't about politics or personalities," DiBiagio said. "They really are about holding people accountable, and following the rules and right and wrong. ... Just because you're a public official doesn't mean you're immune from the rules."

The City Council inquiry joins a growing list of cases begun under DiBiagio's watch that appear to target possible wrongdoing by public officials or agencies.

They include a federal grand jury investigation stemming from Maryland State Police Superintendent Edward T. Norris' use of an off-the-books expense account while he served as Baltimore's police commissioner. Also, the FBI is investigating whether employees at a state crime-control agency improperly used federal funds - a probe derided by former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend during last fall's gubernatorial election as "political garbage."

Federal authorities have begun inquiries into the fund-raising activities of state Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller and contracting work done on the home of Injured Workers Insurance Fund head Thomas L. Bromwell, a former state senator from Baltimore County. Investigators also have issued broad subpoenas for records related to the activities of health insurer CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and its top executives, including company President William L. Jews.

First high-profile case

The first high-profile public corruption case to reach an indictment since DiBiagio took office in late 2001 was against prominent Baltimore investment banker Nathan A. Chapman Jr., charged in June with defrauding the state pension system and his companies. In each of the other inquiries, the possible outcome and substantive details are unknown because such investigations are conducted largely in private and break the public surface only rarely - when a subpoena is served, for instance, or a witness is called to the grand jury.

Still, the state's top federal prosecutor - a Republican appointed by President Bush - has made no secret of his intention to aggressively pursue possible public wrongdoing. In a 2000 law review article about federal public corruption cases, DiBiagio wrote that, "The investigation and prosecution of public corruption rarely meshes smoothly with political realities.

"However, the principles involved are too vital to sacrifice for political convenience," he wrote.

In spite of his emphasis on such cases, signs of political corruption probes in the state emerged slowly during DiBiagio's first two years in office. Finding few significant cases in the works when he took over the office, he sought to change that by hiring experienced assistant prosecutors and demonstrating a steely independent streak that has helped to persuade sources with sensitive, inside information to come forward.

DiBiagio's efforts to emphasize white-collar and public corruption investigations, largely the territory of the FBI, also coincided with efforts by top-level FBI officials to reinvent the bureau as an agency that is more focused on preventing terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

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