DiBiagio gets formal rebuke from his boss

Unusual public reprimand for prosecutor's directives

`Protecting office's credibility'

Public corruption cases must get superior's OK

July 17, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

In a rare public rebuke, the Justice Department told Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio yesterday that all future public corruption cases from his office must be reviewed and approved by Washington to protect the office's credibility.

The letter from Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey admonished DiBiagio for issuing recent directives pressuring his prosecutors for convictions of elected officials and "front page" indictments by November.

Comey wrote in the letter that he had reviewed the directives - two e-mails and a staff agenda written by DiBiagio - and that he understands that the Republican prosecutor's "intentions may not have been accurately reflected in those communications."

"But I also know that the credibility of this Department, particularly in matters involving alleged public corruption, is indispensable," Comey wrote.

"We can never allow political considerations - or the perception of such considerations - to taint the work done by our dedicated investigators and prosecutors," the letter reads. "To protect that credibility, which has been earned by generations of hard, honest work, you are directed, until further notice, to submit to me for review any proposed indictment in a public corruption matter."

Comey then wrote: "You may not bring such a case without my personal approval."

The letter from DiBiagio's supervisor was sent one day after The Sun published copies of his recent confidential e-mails to his prosecutors and the agenda for a May staff meeting.

DiBiagio could not be reached yesterday. His spokeswoman, Vicky LeDuc, did not return several messages from The Sun seeking comment.

But in a statement issued to other news organizations, DiBiagio said he would follow Comey's instruction "without exception."

"I regret sending any improper message with regard to the investigation of public corruption matters," DiBiagio said in the statement.

Unusually harsh

Legal experts and former prosecutors said the tone of yesterday's letter of rebuke was unusually harsh.

"Wow," said George Parry, a former state and federal prosecutor in Pennsylvania. "That's what we would have called in the old days a major [butt] kicking. It's highly unusual but well justified considering the remarks of the prosecutor."

Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman, said other federal prosecutors have been similarly "admonished."

"I don't want to say it's a normal procedure - obviously it's not - but it has happened in the past," Corallo said. "Other U.S. attorneys have been admonished, and in some cases they've had cases that needed to be reviewed."

Former Maryland U.S. Attorney Steven H. Sachs, a Democrat, said Comey's letter should not be interpreted as disagreement by the Justice Department with DiBiagio's pursuit of political corruption cases.

"Of course it's a slap at Tom," Sachs said. "But I don't think you can read it as an agreement that his motives have been improper. I read it as a reaction to him having permitted his motives to be called into question. Which I'm afraid he did."

Former federal prosecutor David B. Irwin said Justice Department officials had to say something to keep defense attorneys from using DiBiagio's e-mails to try to convince juries that public corruption cases are politically motivated.

"That would seem to be a logical move, for the Department of Justice to validate any indictments," Irwin said. "So people like me couldn't scream, `This is one of the innocent people he's indicting before November 6.'"

Comey's letter did little to satisfy Maryland Democratic Party officials who had called for DiBiagio's resignation Thursday. "He has to go," party Chairman Isiah Leggett said yesterday.

DiBiagio's confidential documents were obtained by The Sun from sources requesting anonymity for fear of retaliation. The documents include:

A May 14 staff meeting agenda written by DiBiagio that states 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 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?"

A July 3 e-mail he wrote as a mea culpa to the staff for the first: "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."

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