Head hunting

July 16, 2004

THOMAS M. DiBiagio, be careful what you wish for.

Mr. DiBiagio, Maryland's U.S. attorney, wanted front-page headlines from his staff. And he got them yesterday: for demanding his lawyers produce three "front-page" indictments for public corruption or white-collar crimes by Nov. 6.

Isn't there something a little arbitrary about that? Before there are indictments, shouldn't there be some - well, evidence? Don't the facts turned up by the investigation determine the prosecutor's course of action?

The tone and timing of Mr. DiBiagio's request - as reported by The Sun - underscore his preoccupation with government corruption and his frustration with the pace of several high-profile cases languishing in his office. But they also suggest another side to the cautious, soft-spoken Republican: that he is as politically motivated as the next guy, eager to nail a few scalps - presumably those of elected Democrats - before the Nov. 2 election.

In an agenda for a May 14 staff meeting obtained by Sun reporter Doug Donovan, Mr. DiBiagio insisted on action against public figures, improved relations with the FBI and indictments of members of a violent West Baltimore drug gang. Mr. DiBiagio's policy objectives do make sense in Maryland, but there are ways to leverage federal probes and ways to motivate staff.

When the boss singles out elected officials in the midst of a contentious presidential race and demands results around Election Day, his motivations become suspect. Those suspicions are magnified because the corruption cases under way in Mr. DiBiagio's office have evolved into wide-ranging fishing expeditions.

In a July 1 staff e-mail, Mr. DiBiagio trumpeted a federal corruption indictment in Philadelphia as a model case. But that case originated - properly - as an FBI investigation, not as a crusade by a zealous prosecutor.

How Mr. DiBiagio manages his staff becomes the public's business if it distracts - or undercuts - what's in the public interest. He should learn from his legitimate successes - in the pursuit of the drug-dealing, murderous Lexington Terrace Boys, and of former city Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris. That's the way to get front-page headlines - by focusing on the crimes that are all too real.

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