Subpoenas issued to council members in probe

Officials asked to testify before federal grand jury

April 20, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Federal investigators who have been probing the finances of Baltimore's City Council for seven months have begun to subpoena the elected officials to testify before a grand jury, council members said.

The subpoenas for testimony represent a new phase in U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio's wide-ranging investigation into the council that began in September and recently widened to include city officials' dealings with developers.

Numerous council members said that members have been asked to appear before the grand jury to testify about documents they produced last year. It is unclear how many council members were subpoenaed for testimony, but their appearances will begin this month and stretch through May.

The elected officials were initially subpoenaed in September and October to produce five years' worth of documents detailing their office expenses, hiring practices, business dealings and campaign finances.

Receiving a subpoena to testify does not mean the recipient is a target of the investigation, officials and experts said.

Council members Catherine E. Pugh and Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. confirmed that they had received subpoenas requesting their testimony. Both said their attorneys had told them they cannot comment further.

Councilwoman Pamela V. Carter said she had not received a subpoena, but that her attorney had asked her for dates when she would be available to interview with federal investigators. She said she did not know if the interview would be with the grand jury.

Council President Sheila Dixon responded as most council members did when asked yesterday if they had been subpoenaed to testify: "Ask Neal Janey."

Janey and Larry A. Nathans are the two defense attorneys hired and paid for by the city last year to represent the council during the investigation.

"You have to talk to the U.S. Attorney's office," said Janey, a former city solicitor and federal prosecutor. "I cannot discuss that with you."

A spokeswoman for DiBiagio said she could neither confirm nor deny any details about the council investigation.

According to a federal official, the subpoenas for testimony indicate that DiBiagio's investigation has progressed, and that his investigators might have found evidence of possible public corruption - one of DiBiagio's priorities.

Former prosecutor

Andrew C. White, a white-collar criminal-defense attorney and a former federal prosecutor, said that subpoenas for testimony also could mean that investigators are trying to pit council members against each other.

"It may be that they are not targets, and what the U.S. Attorney is trying to do is get information about council members from other council members," said White, who does not represent anyone related to DiBiagio's council investigation. "If you are the target of a grand jury, typically you will not be subpoenaed before the grand jury."

The target, or targets, of DiBiagio's inquiry remains a mystery debated by council members, many of whom have called the investigation politically motivated. The council is all-Democratic. DiBiagio is a Republican appointed by President Bush.

"If we had a new president, I do think gun prosecutions would become a higher priority," Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, said last week. "I do know whenever Republicans are in office there is much greater scrutiny paid to cities, trying to highlight and point out programs that are not in lock step with the policies of more conservative people who from time to time control the White House."

In addition to investigating council finances, DiBiagio issued subpoenas in February which asked minority developers about any gifts they gave to Dixon and three former city officials.

The subpoenas sought information about any dealings between the businesses and former city real estate officer Anthony J. Ambridge, now a developer, and two former O'Malley appointees, Owen Tonkins and Gary M. Brooks, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

The mentioning of their names in a subpoena does not indicate that any of them are targets of DiBiagio's investigation, officials said.

Ambridge has said he was angry to learn his name was mentioned in the context of the probe. He said he has received no subpoenas, no calls or visits from anyone connected with the U.S. attorney's office and has no idea why developers would be asked about gifts to him.

"It's very frustrating," Ambridge said.

Brooks and Tonkins could not be reached for comment yesterday. Brooks left his position Dec. 30 as chief executive of the Baltimore Community Development Finance Corp., a city-related lending agency. Tonkins stepped down at the same time after nearly three years as head of the Mayor's Office of Minority Business Development.

Defending office

Last week, O'Malley defended that office's work on improving the amount of minority contractors who win city contracts.

"We will do our very best to always maintain a high standard ourselves on everything we do and try never ever to allow misjudgments or indiscretions by anyone in government to bring ill repute to positive programs like MBE [minority business enterprise]," O'Malley said.

Sun staff writer Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

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