DiBiagio's focus `shook up that office'

Prosecutor: The U.S. attorney's eagerness to seek out public corruption hasn't made his tenure any easier.

July 18, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

When he took the job as Maryland's U.S. attorney, Thomas M. DiBiagio made it known that in his office, public corruption cases would be king.

It was days after Sept. 11, 2001, and the Department of Justice was saying federal prosecutors should focus on terrorism. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley was pushing for federal gun prosecutions. So was DiBiagio's political benefactor, then-U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

But DiBiagio was steely and independent. He was in charge of the office, he would say. Public corruption, along with violent crime and white-collar fraud cases, were the priorities.

This past week, the Department of Justice took control of those prized cases, saying that any future public corruption indictments coming out of DiBiagio's office would have to be vetted by Washington.

It was fallout from an agenda and e-mails DiBiagio had written to his staff, and obtained by The Sun, in which said he wanted at least three "front page" indictments by November. It was also, many familiar with the office said, a very public slap in the face.

While DiBiagio earns praise from many corners - a number of lawyers call him a "straight shooter" and a passionate prosecutor; the city state's attorney calls him a partner in fighting Baltimore's crime - his three-year tenure as U.S. attorney has proved in many ways rocky.

This most recent incident may be the most explosive - the publication of the internal agenda and two DiBiagio e-mails that pushed his staff for more indictments of elected officials - but it is hardly alone. Even before he was in the job, DiBiagio was raising eyebrows.

In July 2001, months before he was confirmed, DiBiagio sent an e-mail memo that circulated around the U.S. attorney's office outlining his planned management changes. Once in his position, he quickly reshuffled jobs, and many previously high-ranking prosecutors - including those in charge of corruption investigations - quit.

There is still significant discontent among some prosecutors, said many lawyers who work in the federal court house.

"He certainly shook up that office, and there are certainly people who don't appreciate it," said defense lawyer David B. Irwin.

Within months of his tenure, DiBiagio was also sparring externally, particularly with O'Malley. The mayor criticized DiBiagio for pursuing fewer gun crimes and failing to do all he could to curb Baltimore's violent crime problem.

"All I know is that when [DiBiagio] first came into office, he told me that gun prosecutions were no longer a top three priority and that political prosecutions and public corruption are a top priority," O'Malley said last week.

DiBiagio jousted with Ehrlich, too. In the gubernatorial campaign, Ehrlich criticized the federal prosecutor for not doing enough about gun violence - prompting DiBiagio to testily defend his record in an October 2002 news conference.

"What I'm bothered by is a 15-year-old friendship that has been put in jeopardy by comments that are baseless," he said, apparently referring to the long friendship he had shared with Ehrlich since they were both young lawyers in Baltimore.

DiBiagio has continued to be criticized about the number of his gun prosecutions. His position is that it is most effective for the U.S. attorney's office to take only the most serious gun and drug cases, and city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said she agrees.

"We discuss meetings between our staff, sharing of law enforcement information that is vital to prosecutors," she said in a statement Friday. "And Tom always has a willingness to carefully weigh the prosecution that is in the best interest of the citizens we serve."

But DiBiagio's relationship with some other law enforcement agencies has not been as strong. A rift with the FBI became public through a scathing letter the prosecutor wrote about the agency's Baltimore office 1 1/2 years ago.

His 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, 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, a justice official said.

But through his entire tenure, regardless of other distractions, DiBiagio has pressed steadily forward on public corruption cases. He has said that this type of case has been neglected for too long by the Maryland U.S. attorney's office.

His main success in that area was the prosecution of former Maryland State Police Superintendent and Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris. That case resulted in Norris pleading guilty to federal corruption and tax charges.

The office also recently secured a guilty plea from a former Baltimore school employee for stealing more than $200,000 from the system.

But other cases are pending.

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