U.S. Attorney DiBiagio resigns

High-profile victories and public stumbles

A Look Back

December 04, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

In just over three years as Maryland's top federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio scored high-profile courtroom victories but also stumbled publicly at times.

He won convictions in the corruption cases of former Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris and Baltimore investment manager Nathan A. Chapman Jr. He helped disrupt violent drug gangs and sent a crooked currency trader to prison.

But five months ago, he received a rare rebuke from the Justice Department after asking his staff in confidential e-mails for three more "front page" public corruption indictments.

Also, a lengthy, public investigation of the Baltimore City Council has not borne fruit.

As he tried to build what he liked to call a "first-rate, independent and aggressive law firm," the Republican-appointed DiBiagio often sparred with Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, over whether his office pursued enough federal gun cases.

In one of the more trying episodes he faced, DiBiagio had to deal with the unsolved death of one of his office's prosecutors. On Thursday, FBI and Pennsylvania investigators said they cannot explain how 38-year-old Jonathan P. Luna wound up dead in a creek last December.

DiBiagio, 44, who was appointed by President Bush days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, laid out three priorities: public corruption, white-collar crimes and complex drug cases.

"I think he deserves great credit for restoring the office to its prior stature as a public watchdog," said George Beall, a former U.S. attorney.

"Perhaps there were some missteps in the execution of the mission, but I don't think that should detract from the high standard that he set for the office," Beall said.

Familiar with office

DiBiagio was no stranger to the office, having served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the elder Bush and Clinton administrations. He previously worked at the Baltimore firm Semmes, Bowen & Semmes.

A longtime Baltimore-area resident, DiBiagio earned a bachelor's degree in international studies from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and graduated from the University of Richmond Law School.

When he took office, DiBiagio was seen by colleagues as mild-mannered but aggressive.

An early highlight was the 2002 guilty plea of John M. Rusnak, who admitted to a banking scheme that cost Allfirst Financial Inc. $691 million. Rusnak was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison.

The next year, DiBiagio took over from state prosecutors the case against a small-time East Baltimore drug dealer who admitted that he burned the home of a neighbor he believed was "snitching on people." The attack killed seven members of the Dawson family and made national news. In August of last year, Darrell L. Brooks, 22, received a life sentence.

In July of this year, a federal judge sentenced two members of the Lexington Terrace Boys gang to life without parole for a series of drug-related homicides that began in 1999 and included the killing of a witness.

Still, DiBiagio might be best remembered for public corruption cases.

In March, he secured a victory when Norris - who served as state police superintendent after quitting as police commissioner - pleaded guilty to conspiring to misuse money from a supplemental city police fund and lying on tax returns. He is serving six months in prison.

DiBiagio called the Norris guilty plea a "reminder of the embedded corruption here, and the emerging resolve not to look the other way."

But DiBiagio's zealous pursuit of such cases was soon called into question. In July, The Sun obtained e-mails that DiBiagio wrote to his staff asking for three "front page" indictments for public corruption or white-collar crimes by November, and complaining about the pace of cases against elected officials.

The next day, the Justice Department told him all future public corruption cases from his office must be reviewed and approved by Washington to protect the office's credibility.

The e-mails surfaced during the trial of Chapman on charges that the investment manager defrauded the Maryland state employee pension system and shareholders of his firm.

After Chapman's conviction on multiple counts, DiBiagio asserted that his office had been vindicated. He said he was never motivated by a "political agenda" or "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."

Chapman was sentenced to the same prison term as Rusnak: 7 1/2 years.

Yet the investigation of the City Council has not led to indictments. Yesterday, DiBiagio said it is "ongoing" but would not elaborate.

The City Council probe's existence was disclosed by The Sun in October of last year after federal prosecutors subpoenaed council members about their hiring practices, relations with businessmen and acceptance of gifts and loans.

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