DiBiagio voices frustration over pace of top cases

Critics see confidential comments as proof of U.S. attorney's political motives

July 15, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio has told his staff he wants three "front page" indictments for public corruption or white-collar crimes by November and is frustrated with the pace of cases against elected officials, according to internal documents obtained by The Sun.

Two July e-mails and a staff meeting agenda, all written by DiBiagio, provide a rare and candid glimpse of a management style that the federal prosecutor himself labeled in an interview yesterday as "very aggressive" and impatient.

DiBiagio's critics say his confidential comments provide chilling proof that the Republican prosecutor is motivated by politics and publicity. They contend that he is pushing for a quota of high-profile prosecutions against elected officials in a presidential election year.

Since taking office three years ago, DiBiagio has made investigating public corruption a top priority - including a wide-ranging probe of the Baltimore City Council in which his office subpoenaed records from all 19 members.

`Nov. 6' goals

DiBiagio's agenda for a May 14 staff meeting outlines several goals he wants to accomplish by "Nov. 6" in order to make the Maryland U.S. Attorney's office the nation's "premier office." By that date, four days after the Nov. 2 presidential election, DiBiagio wants: "Three `Front Page' White Collar/Public Corruption Indictments."

His agenda also states he wants improved relations with the FBI and "two `Lexington Terrace' drug trafficking indictments."

On July 1, DiBiagio wrote an e-mail to his staff detailing federal grand jury indictments unsealed last month against city officials in Philadelphia.

"On Tuesday, the federal grand jury in Philadelphia indicted the city's former treasurer and thirteen other defendants as part of a wide-ranging investigation into municipal corruption," DiBiagio wrote.

He then stated: "Why aren't we doing cases like this? Am I the only one embarrassed by the fact that this Office has not convicted an elected official of corruption since 1988?"

Two days later, after some top advisers counseled that his tone was too harsh, he went in to his office on a Saturday to write a clarifying e-mail, a managerial mea culpa.

"My recent e-mail about the indictment in Philadelphia sent the wrong message. I should have realized this before I sent it," he wrote. "I know everyone is making an effort to make these kinds of cases and that we have a few cases with some real potential in the works."

He added: "I was just frustrated and was hoping we could of [moved] further faster. I realize that it is going to take some time and I need to be more patient."

In an interview yesterday, DiBiagio confirmed that he wrote the e-mails and the agenda. He said he was simply trying to motivate his staff.

`Set high expectations'

"It's good that I set high expectations and goals," DiBiagio said. "Yes, we do have an inventory of these cases we can bring by the end of the year."

But such goals raised concerns from his bosses in Washington.

"All of our United States attorneys know that our top priority is fighting terrorism," said Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman. "There are other important issues such as public corruption, yes, but our top priority is the prevention of terrorist attacks and I'm sure that the U.S. attorney in Maryland is well aware of that."

In 2001, DiBiagio was appointed to his post by President Bush with the backing of then-U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. A Democratic victory in the Nov. 2 presidential election would likely point to the end of DiBiagio's term.

But the U.S. attorney called the Nov. 6 date in his agenda "arbitrary" and said he has no political ambition.

"If I knew the Sunpaper was going to get it, I would have said `end of the year'" instead of Nov. 6, he said.

`Significant cases'

He also said the phrase "front page" should have been written to read "significant."

"It doesn't actually mean the front page of a newspaper," DiBiagio said. "It means significant cases. I'd be surprised if anyone thinks I'm a headline hog."

DiBiagio rarely grants interviews to reporters and holds few news conferences.

To be sure, not everything in DiBiagio's May 14 agenda related to political corruption. For example, the item about improving relations with the FBI follows a scathing confidential letter he wrote about the Baltimore office 1 1/2 years ago. The Lexington Terrace item refers to a lengthy federal investigation into a murderous drug gang.

DiBiagio said he did not mean to single out "elected officials" in his e-mail. He said he was referring to any corruption cases of public officials.

That's not how some City Council members interpreted the e-mails. Last fall, DiBiagio's office subpoenaed the all-Democratic council, the only elected officials known to be under scrutiny by the federal prosecutors.

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