Verdict is vindication of U.S. attorney's office, DiBiagio says

Undercurrent of trial was defense's criticism of aggressive prosecutor

August 13, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

For weeks, Nathan A. Chapman Jr.'s lawyers prodded at the spot where Thomas M. DiBiagio seemed most vulnerable.

They told jurors that Maryland's U.S. attorney wanted a political corruption case and that Chapman, a well-connected investment manager, was simply a consolation prize.

They hinted at the controversy swirling outside the courtroom, where DiBiagio was being rebuked by the Justice Department and criticized for sending e-mails to his staff urging "front page" corruption indictments.

But yesterday, a smiling DiBiagio walked out of the federal courthouse, flanked by the assistants who had prosecuted Chapman, and told a crowd of reporters that the jury's guilty verdict meant vindication.

`No political agenda'

"Federal prosecutors in Maryland are committed to investigating and prosecuting abuses of position of trust," he said. "This dedication and effort is driven not by political agenda. It is not driven by any personal ambition, but rather a genuine sense of duty to the public to serve all those who play by the rules and struggle to succeed."

Many in the legal community and those familiar with the justice system had been saying that a guilty verdict in this case was crucial for DiBiagio.

Chapman was accused of defrauding the state pension system, stealing from his own publicly traded companies and lying on his tax returns.

But politics and prosecutorial behavior became a clear undertone of the defense case. At the end of the trial, Chapman's lawyers filed a motion alleging a "continuous pattern of intentional, egregious, and highly prejudicial prosecutorial misconduct," in part referring to what they characterized as DiBiagio's bullying investigation.

A number of lawyers said last month's controversy about DiBiagio's e-mails, although possibly unknown to the jurors, added to the sense that the Chapman verdict was a referendum on the top prosecutor himself.

"It has considerable significance for him," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "It's a good test for all the other cases he's going to try."

Words of caution

Yet some cautioned against giving the verdict too much significance.

"The controversy surrounding [DiBiagio] and his office - I don't think that this verdict provides any answer to those allegations one way or another," said defense lawyer Gregg L. Bernstein, a former federal prosecutor. "I think they're a completely separate matter."

Others said Jefferson M. Gray and Craig M. Wolff, the assistant U.S. attorneys who handled the case, should be the ones to get credit for the guilty findings - verdicts won despite the DiBiagio-fueled controversy.

"Jeff Gray is a consummate professional," said Andrew C. White, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. "Throughout all the distractions that he has had to face throughout this trial, he and the prosecution team remained steadfast in presenting their case in a sound and convincing way."

Still, yesterday DiBiagio looked like a man who had aced a test. At his post-verdict news conference, he said the jury had answered the charge that politics and ambition muddy his office's investigations.

"I think the jury has responded," he said. "We have the highest integrity in this office."

Main allegations

Jurors found Chapman guilty of 23 out of 32 counts. The guilty verdicts included the chief allegations of the prosecution's case, in particular, charges that he used state pension money to try to prop up his struggling company in a deal that cost the pension system about $5 million.

"It shows that a jury believed that ... not only was Mr. Chapman guilty, but that the investigation, which came under a lot of scrutiny and criticism by the defense team, was not offensive enough in any way to affect justice," said David B. Irwin, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. "In the big picture, it just goes to show that it is still a great U.S. Attorney's Office."

After court, DiBiagio stood behind his podium with Gray and Wolff; the heads of the Baltimore FBI and IRS offices - Kevin Perkins and Rick A. Raven, respectively - and FBI Special Agent Steven Quisenberry.

Defense attorney William R. "Billy" Martin had strongly criticized Quisenberry for his investigation, saying the agent had wanted to "get" former Gov. Parris N. Glendening and was trying to use Chapman to do it.

Glendening has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

"This investigation and prosecution and today's verdict reaffirm the single principle that's guided this office since its inception," DiBiagio said, "justice without fear or favor."

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