Victory may taste bittersweet to DiBiagio

August 13, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WELL, THOMAS M. DiBiagio gets his front-page story today. Let the self-congratulation begin, and let the questioning of political motives continue in the face of it.

Minutes after a federal jury yesterday pronounced 23 guilty counts against Nathan A. Chapman Jr., the high-profile investment banker and Parris Glendening political pal, there was DiBiagio, holding a news conference out on the sidewalks of Pratt Street, where the sun beamed brightly and the very traffic itself seemed to halt at the glimpse of the famous U.S. attorney.

DiBiagio gets his wish, but maybe not the full satisfaction he might have anticipated. He has only himself to blame. Nathan Chapman does not get his wish - exoneration - and should have only himself to blame.

In the first high-profile case since DiBiagio's own recent troubles, Chapman is declared guilty of defrauding the state employee pension system, guilty of stealing from his own publicly traded company, guilty of tax fraud.

But this jury, ordered not to read newspapers or watch TV news, never knew about any internal memos. They never heard the public misgivings about DiBiagio's own integrity. And Chapman's lawyers were not allowed to tell them about it.

Last month, DiBiagio was caught being indiscreet. Memos were made public that he had sent to his assistants, urging them to produce "front page" cases, "public corruption" cases, cases in which indictments might be handed up by election week. DiBiagio denied he was putting his career before careful administration of justice, denied he was trying to manufacture cases, and denied he might be implicitly pronouncing any high-profile figures guilty until proven innocent.

But it was hard to hear his denials with his foot embedded back to his tonsils, and harder to hear him with Democrats shrieking about political witch hunts and calling for his resignation, and even harder to hear him with his own Justice Department higher-ups wondering why he might be obsessing over political corruption cases at a time their biggest priority was fighting terrorism.

Well, today DiBiagio gets his front-page story, and satisfaction descends upon the U.S. attorney's office. Nathan Chapman's case is precisely the type DiBiagio was seeking. After seven weeks of testimony and six days of jury deliberation, Chapman, 46, had his head handed to him.

Twenty-three times, the jury foreman pronounced guilty. As the slow recitation of verdicts droned on, Chapman did not move a muscle. The reading took several minutes. Chapman stared straight ahead. He seemed to be having an out-of-body experience. But not far enough to escape his worst fears.

These were complex charges, and these jurors seemed to take their work very seriously. They did not go lightly to their verdicts. And surely no one would question their sober examination of this case.

Minutes after yesterday's verdicts, as he positioned himself behind a full-length lectern dragged out to Pratt Street by a couple of his assistants, DiBiagio said Chapman "did it because he could, because he didn't think anybody could stop him." He called the crimes "a violation of trust."

Then, having rapidly dispensed with the verdicts - and perhaps anticipating questions - DiBiagio went directly to his own troubles. He said his office operated on "a single principle - justice without fear or favor." He said it sought out "abuses of trust - regardless of prestige or power." He said it was driven "not by political agenda or personal ambition."

This was nice to hear. Under ordinary circumstances, it would also be considered a given, unnecessary for any government prosecutor to declare. But DiBiagio has a problem of perception that does not so easily go away.

As for Chapman, the verdicts raise an old question: When is lots and lots of money enough?

Among the guilty verdicts: that Chapman used about $5 million in state pension money to prop up his company - a company, according to defense attorney William "Billy" Martin, in which Chapman owned 60 percent of stock valued at nearly $50 million.

In his opening statement, Martin took pains to describe Chapman as a great success story, an African-American child of working parents who overcame long odds to win great wealth and power and political connections.

After yesterday's guilty verdicts, Chapman disappeared quickly from the courtroom. But DiBiagio's news conference, out on Pratt Street, was held in the very shadow of a statue - of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, one of the country's great civil rights pioneers.

Marshall's face was turned away from the nearby proceedings. It was as if he were unwilling to witness the tragedy of Nathan Chapman. Or unhappy to linger over the troubling language of Thomas DiBiagio.

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