DiBiagio steps down

December 07, 2004

AS CHIEF federal prosecutor in Maryland, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio wanted his office to be, in his words, "a first-rate independent law firm." That required hiring talented prosecutors. It involved changing priorities. It meant shaking things up. The celebrated cases his office successfully prosecuted took down a thieving currency trader, a former city police chief who mixed too much pleasure with business, a well-connected Baltimore investment banker and the leaders of a notorious West Baltimore drug gang. But he won't be voted manager of the year.

If Mr. DiBiagio pushed himself, he pushed his staff harder. If he kept a "to do" list, he expected the same of his prosecutors and wanted updates as well. And that cost him - not in cases lost, necessarily, but in turmoil within his office. Mr. DiBiagio brought in sharp prosecutors, but drove away solid veterans.

The discontent in the office eventually led to Mr. DiBiagio's most embarrassing moments since he took the job in September 2001. They stemmed from confidential memos leaked to the press in which he exhorted his staff to get busy and produce the kind of political corruption cases that would make "front page" headlines before the November election. It may have been a figure of speech and a poor characterization at that. But the memo gave critics inside and outside his office ample ammunition to challenge his interest in political corruption cases as "politically motivated," which provoked an unusual review from his Washington bosses.

But if that is what most people remember about Mr. DiBiagio's term, they do him an injustice. Those who know him say that some of his mistakes were made because he wasn't politically savvy. After all, he sparred not only with Baltimore's Democratic mayor over gun prosecutions but also with the Republican governor who nominated him for the job. He wasn't adept at dealing with the media, which may have exacerbated his problems in the courthouse and surely with his bosses at the Justice Department.

If Mr. DiBiagio was eager to prosecute public corruption cases, he did so because such action was overdue. Corrupt politicians are a worthy cause, but after the dust-up over his memo, he had to clear those cases with his Justice Department superiors.

To his credit, Mr. DiBiagio was as aggressive in prosecuting murderous drug dealers who killed for a living and killed more with the poison they sold on Baltimore streets. At the request of city prosecutors, he took on sexual offenders and other predators who brought him no headlines. Mr. DiBiagio's independent, hard-driving style distinguished him in the job, but his desire to accomplish his goals in under four years may have led to his personnel problems. His office put away violent criminals who managed to escape conviction in city court, and that contribution to a safer Baltimore will be long-lasting. He wanted mightily to make a difference in the lives of Marylanders - and that dedication will be sorely missed.

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