U.S. attorney to focus on terrorism

Rosenstein: Newly sworn-in federal prosecutor discusses his priorities.

July 13, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

In his first interview after taking office, Maryland's new U.S. attorney pledged to fight terrorism as his office's top priority but acknowledged that it will be difficult for the public to evaluate his success.

"The challenge with terrorism is that if we fail, everyone knows about it, and if we succeed, often people don't find out," said Rod J. Rosenstein, a former high-ranking Justice Department lawyer who was sworn in at a private courthouse ceremony in Baltimore yesterday.

"It's not just the number of terrorism prosecutions, it's whether we've disrupted a number of terrorist schemes and therefore prevented terrorism from happening," he said.

Among his other priorities, Rosenstein said, were gun-related violations, violent and drug-related crimes and white-collar frauds, including public corruption.

No elected official voiced opposition to Rosenstein's nomination by President Bush in May and confirmation by the Senate this month. Rosenstein succeeds Thomas M. DiBiagio, who was appointed in 2001 and announced his resignation in December.

When he took office, DiBiagio said his office would become "a first-rate independent law firm," and he scored victories in dismantling violent drug organizations and taking down corrupt public officials, including Baltimore's former police commissioner. His blustery style seemed built for news conferences and gained him the support of many rank-and-file law enforcement officials.

Critics, however, including some of his own attorneys, said he appeared at best politically tone-deaf when he wrote to subordinates that he wanted three "front page" indictments in 2004. The memo was later criticized by his superiors at the Justice Department, and DiBiagio resigned from the post at the end of the year.

His temporary replacement, Allen F. Loucks, ended two high-profile public corruption investigations before they made it to trial.

A conservative-styled lawyer hardly prone to catchy sound bites, Rosenstein did not criticize DiBiagio or his style yesterday, and sidestepping comment on the decisions to drop the corruption investigations.

"My personal view is that if someone is not guilty of a crime and the government doesn't file charges, then that's a success," Rosenstein said. "Every investigation doesn't have to result in a prosecution. ... Likewise, after we indict a case, I would hope that we are always open to new information that comes up and reconsider our decisions, if need be."

Rosenstein, 40, of Bethesda, has spent almost his entire legal career as a prosecutor, most recently as a supervisor of the Justice Department's criminal tax cases. He returns to Maryland, where he spent four years from 1997 until 2001 as a federal prosecutor, mostly in the Greenbelt office.

While Rosenstein said he hopes to have a cooperative relationship with local and federal officials, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley immediately revived a once-sensitive criticism of federal authorities: their reluctance to prosecute gun cases.

Pointing to federal gun prosecution statistics showing that Maryland has fallen behind the Philadelphia, Richmond, Va., and Northern Virginia regions, spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said, "We've lagged behind our neighbors and, as a result, the U.S. attorney has a lot of ground to make up."

Rosenstein said in the interview that federal prosecutors in Maryland have increased the number of gun prosecutions each year for the past three years. But he also said he would review the office's performance.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said the disagreement is based on a misconception that the federal court is always the better venue to prosecute gun crimes.

"For first offenders, it's often better to try a case in state court, where the penalties are greater now," she said last night.

One of the differences for Rosenstein will be a new ruling on federal sentencing guidelines, which have recently changed from mandatory to advisory.

The Bush administration, saying federal judges are handing out lighter prison sentences since the Supreme Court gave them more discretion, is backing a new system of "guideline minimum" sentences - a concept whose roots are endorsed by Rosenstein.

"I think they're extraordinarily valuable," he said of the sentencing guidelines, adding that they provided a baseline to treat defendants accused of similar crimes in a similar way.

The new proposal by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales seeks to give judges flexibility in setting prison terms while requiring them to justify any sentence lighter than the guidelines.

Former colleagues of Rosenstein described him as a determined but no-frills leader. In his interview yesterday, he spoke deliberately but offered few concrete details about his plans for the office.

"My leadership style is to talk to people and find out what we're doing well and what we need to do differently," he said.

He did not comment on whether he plans to restructure the office, saying instead, "I think the major strength of this office is the people. We have an outstanding group of attorneys and support staff. The most important part of my job is to do what I can to support them."

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