Democrat demands DiBiagio resign

Prosecutor could face political, credibility issues after remarks in e-mail

Ehrlich defends U.S. attorney

July 16, 2004|By Doug Donovan and Laura Sullivan | Doug Donovan and Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Maryland's U.S. attorney, Thomas M. DiBiagio, may face credibility questions in court and political problems in Washington after his recent e-mail directives pressuring prosecutors for more convictions of elected officials and "front page" indictments, federal officials and legal observers said yesterday.

Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Isiah Leggett demanded DiBiagio's resignation and accused the Republican prosecutor of pursuing politically motivated prosecutions to garner publicity.

"For nearly three years Mr. 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," Leggett said in a statement. "Mr. DiBiagio must step down to restore the integrity of the U.S. attorney's office."

But Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. defended DiBiagio by saying the prosecutor adequately explained his motives and what he had meant by the phrase "front page" indictments. "I've known him for a long time, and I think he should be given the benefit of the doubt," Ehrlich said.

"You would hope any U.S. attorney, anyone ... with that much power, would use appropriate judgment in deciding which cases to follow up on," he said. The governor said he didn't think it was appropriate for anyone to comment on the internal workings of the U.S. attorney's office.

The Sun obtained a rare peek into the internal workings of DiBiagio's office through three confidential documents he wrote. DiBiagio said in an interview Wednesday that the documents were simply used to motivate his staff and that he would never push his subordinates to do anything but "follow the facts and the law." He did not comment yesterday.

The internal documents, provided to The Sun by sources who demanded anonymity to avoid retaliation, include:

A May 14 staff meeting agenda written by DiBiagio that states that he wants three "front page" indictments for public corruption or white-collar crimes by Nov. 6, which critics pointed out is four days after the presidential election that could determine whether DiBiagio keeps his White House-appointed position.

A July 1 e-mail that DiBiagio wrote to his staff that details recent federal grand jury indictments unsealed against city government officials in Philadelphia alleging municipal corruption.

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

And, a July 3 e-mail he wrote as a mea culpa to the staff for the first e-mail: "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 also wrote: "I was just frustrated and was hoping that we could of [moved] further faster. I realize that it is going to take some time and I need to be more patient."

`Political weapon'

Democrats wasted no time yesterday in expressing how they felt about DiBiagio's comments. Leggett criticized DiBiagio for not pursuing more gun prosecutions and said that even the federal prosecutor's boss in Washington, the U.S. Department of Justice, "has questioned his commitment to fighting terrorism."

"The U.S. attorney's office is vital to our war on violent crime and terrorism and must not be used as a political weapon to indict innocent people for political gain," Leggett said.

While political opponents called for his resignation yesterday, Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo labeled DiBiagio a "fantastic prosecutor" and said the department supports his efforts.

But privately, department sources said DiBiagio's bosses in Washington - unnerved by his memos - either had contacted him or were planning to.

Senior officials have taken the unusual step of calling DiBiagio to Washington on several occasions over the past three years for private rebukes, charging him with being out of step with the department and its priorities, according to officials close to the meetings.

The most notable incident occurred in the spring of 2003 when then-Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson chastised DiBiagio for his memo criticizing the FBI after it was published in The Sun.

One senior Justice Department official said yesterday that department officials are growing weary of what they view as DiBiagio's public acts of aggression. The official said DiBiagio lacks skills in dealing with the press, politicians and his colleagues.

Marred relationship

DiBiagio's relationship with the Justice Department has been marred by his habit of skipping senior department meetings, even those called by Attorney General John Ashcroft. At one such meeting last year, a top official said, DiBiagio told colleagues before he left he had "work to do," even though Ashcroft was at the front of the room presenting the department's agenda.

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