Forgetting to use his head, DiBiagio puts foot in mouth

July 16, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE BRILLIANT U.S. attorney for Maryland, Thomas M. DiBiagio, has now put his foot so deep into his mouth that it might take a subpoena to remove it. He is, by his own account, a seeker of front-page headlines. He is, by his own account, pushing his assistants to issue three "public corruption" indictments by Nov. 6 - four days after Election Day. He is so brilliant in seeking these things that any defense attorney worth his salt could take DiBiagio's own words and use them as the first piece of evidence to get their high-profile clients off the hook.

And now DiBiagio is forced to retract his words and hope nobody notices the big-booted arrogance and indiscretion behind them.

DiBiagio says he is embarrassed. Embarrassed by what? That he's being accused of putting his career before careful administration of justice? Embarrassed that he's being accused of politicizing his office by Democrats now calling for his resignation? Embarrassed that a U.S. Justice Department spokesman pointed out yesterday, "All our U.S. attorneys know that our top priority is fighting terrorism" - and not bending over backward to make cases against elected officials?

Not even close. DiBiagio is embarrassed, according to a memo he sent to all prosecutors in his office, because a federal grand jury in Philadelphia indicted that city's former treasurer and 13 others, while DiBiagio, sitting forlornly in Baltimore, has only hinted at such swell reputation-building stuff.

"Why aren't we doing cases like this?" DiBiagio asked his staff in a feverish e-mail he sent them at precisely 7:02 on the morning of July 1. "Am I the only one embarrassed by the fact that this Office has not convicted an elected official of corruption since 1988?"

Well, yes, actually. The rest of us, citizens of the state of Maryland, might take a certain comfort that nobody in elected office has committed acts deemed worthy of federal prosecution. We might like to think that we have honest people in political office - instead of seeming to suggest, as DiBiagio does, that public officials are guilty, and that if we turn over enough rocks we'll surely uncover something or other.

We had plenty of such cases around here for years. Maryland's U.S. attorney's office covered itself with courtroom fame. They got Spiro Agnew out of the White House. They got Dale Anderson out of Baltimore County, and Joseph Alton out of Anne Arundel, and they got Marvin Mandel out of the State House. And there were plenty of others.

But it has been, as DiBiago notes, a long time between such headlines. Maybe elected officials learned to play it straight - or maybe, as DiBiagio seems to think, they just learned to hide better. And this has him frustrated and embarrassed.

His e-mails, and a staff meeting agenda, were reported yesterday by The Sun's Doug Donovan. DiBiagio's reaction? Gee, he really didn't mean what he said.

He really didn't mean the Nov. 6 date - the same week as national elections. It was just "arbitrary," he said. It was something he plucked out of the air and certainly nothing to do with political motivations. And the "front page" reference? Another slip of the tongue. "It doesn't actually mean the front page of a newspaper," DiBiagio told Donovan. No, of course not. What are we speaking here, separate languages?

All of this will come as interesting news to such persons as the entire Baltimore City Council. Eight months ago, DiBiagio's office subpoenaed records from these folks. He was concerned, among other things, that some of them might have taken free passes to indoor soccer games at the Baltimore Arena. Nothing further has been heard about this since November.

But the subpoenas reminded us of two things: how petty this U.S. attorney's office can be, and how pitiful that anybody might be foolish enough to imagine bribes going to officials who are essentially powerless.

We won't get into the notion of a Republican prosecutor issuing subpoenas for a council composed entirely of Democrats - but DiBiagio's newest memos certainly set off Democrats yesterday. State Democratic Party Chairman Isiah Leggett demanded DiBiagio's resignation, declaring, "For nearly three years, DiBiagio has used the U.S. attorney's office primarily for political witch hunts, and now we have damning evidence to prove what many have long suspected."

Is Leggett using the memos as his own political ax? Of course. And there's the problem: The U.S. attorney's office, and the vast power it wields, must be kept above this kind of political squabbling. And now DiBiagio's words have stripped away that aura.

If his office ever does indict an elected official, how long would it take a defense attorney to grab those memos and say, "They built a case because this prosecutor wanted a newspaper headline"? And, in a cynical, politically polarized age, what jury is going to say otherwise?

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