Md. prosecutor's office has hit corruption hard

Law: For three decades, Maryland's U.S. attorneys made names for themselves by sending corrupt officials to jail.

July 17, 2004|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

For decades, the Maryland U.S. attorney's office was regarded by many as the premier office in the country at the tricky and complicated business of prosecuting public corruption.

In the late 1960s, '70s, '80s and into the '90s, the office brought down a vice president, a U.S. senator, three congressmen, a speaker of the House of Delegates, a governor, two county executives, a state senator, a city council president, a city councilman, lobbyists, contractors, builders, ministers and others.

But the public rebuke yesterday of U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio has some political observers questioning whether the office will be hampered in its pursuit of public corruption.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the editions of July 17 stated incorrectly that former U.S. Sen. Daniel B. Brewster was convicted of accepting a bribe from a lobbyist. He pleaded no contest to accepting an unlawful gratuity without corrupt intent.
The Sun regrets the errors.

DiBiagio had prodded his staff to produce three "front page" public corruption indictments by November.

"It's highly unusual, and his stock has plummeted," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster. "This was so blatant and offensive."

Former Maryland U.S. Attorney Stephen H. Sachs said the disclosure of DiBiagio's e-mail message to his staff has left him "vulnerable." But Sachs does not believe that the reprimand will curtail DiBiagio's crime-fighting effort.

"If federal law enforcement doesn't prosecute this kind of wrong-doing, it ain't going to get done," Sachs said.

George Beall, who became Maryland's U.S. attorney after Sachs, said the notice to DiBiagio was merely a reminder of a procedure that the Department of Justice had established three decades ago.

"I don't think there will be any lingering effect on the U.S. attorney's office," Beall said. "This too shall pass."

Proud history

Former U.S. attorneys such as Sachs and Beall speak proudly of the Maryland office's history of battling corruption.

Sachs recalled his early days in the office as an assistant to U.S. Attorney Joseph Tydings in the 1960s, when the Maryland office prosecuted speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates A. Gordon Boone, a longtime Baltimore County attorney.

Boone was convicted of six counts of mail fraud in connection with the operation of Security Financial Insurance Corp., a private insurance company for savings and loans.

When Sachs became U.S. attorney in 1967, he quickly gained attention as an aggressive prosecutor with the successful prosecution of -- among others -- U.S. Sen. Daniel B. Brewster, who was convicted on charges that he had accepted a bribe from a lobbyist.

The office gained its most notable victory in the prosecution of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who on Oct. 10, 1973, pleaded nolo contendere to a charge of income tax evasion in the case brought by Beall.

Clearance required

Beall said as a result of the Agnew case, the Justice Department began requiring clearance of public corruption cases before proposed indictments were pursued. So the requirement for DiBiagio was nothing new, Beall said.

"Ordinarily, this is something that would be done privately," Beall said. "It's to calm public concern. It's to remind the public of the importance of public corruption matters."

Beall said he, too, emphasized to his staff the need to pursue public corruption along with his other priorities, which included cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and drug enforcement.

"I announced some priorities," Beall said. "But I was not subjected to the same things as Tom [DiBiagio] has."

After Beall's tenure, the office continued to pursue public corruption, prosecuting Anne Arundel County Executive Joseph W. Alton on bribery charges; Dale Anderson, a Baltimore County executive, on extortion charges; City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky, on charges of extorting kickbacks from a sludge hauling company; brothers Clarence M. Mitchell III and Michael B. Mitchell of the prominent Baltimore civil rights family on charges that they accepted $100,000 from the WedTech Corp. in New York to influence a congressional investigation; and Gov. Marvin Mandel on charges of bribery and fraud.

In recent years, the Maryland office of the U.S. attorney successfully prosecuted cases related to public corruption, including the resulting convictions of lobbyists Bruce C. Bereano and Gerard E. Evans and the recent conviction of former city police Chief Edward T. Norris.

But what triggered DiBiagio's demands to his staff was a slowdown in successful prosecutions of elected officials since 1988. Beall and Sachs attribute the decline not to a lack of aggressiveness by the office but to a need to divert resources to combating the drug problem and high-profile cases.

Smith, the political science professor, said public corruption is not as blatant as in times past.

"You still have the problems of people and money and politics," Smith said.

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