Ex-boss disputes DiBiagio's story

Justice official who forced resignation says U.S. attorney for Md. was ousted on merits

March 07, 2007|By Matthew Dolan, Andrew A. Green and Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Dolan, Andrew A. Green and Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporters

The top Justice Department official who forced the resignation of then-U.S. Attorney for Maryland Thomas M. DiBiagio more than two years ago said yesterday that serious problems with the prosecutor's judgment and candor prompted the dismissal.

David Margolis, an associate deputy U.S. attorney general, rejected DiBiagio's assertions this week that his probe of corruption in the Ehrlich administration led to his dismissal. In fact, Margolis said, Jervis S. Finney, the top legal adviser to then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., had long defended DiBiagio's work.

Margolis said Finney called Justice Department officials in 2004 - once to request that DiBiagio's job be spared and again to prolong his tenure. Margolis noted that those would be odd requests from an administration that DiBiagio portrayed as worried about a looming federal investigation into its ties to gambling interests.

Finney could not be reached for comment last night.

"I'm 150 percent sure that we made the right decision with Tom," Margolis said. "I'm a million percent sure ... that it was done on the merits, whether you agree with it or not."

Margolis said DiBiagio's ouster was prompted in large measure by internal e-mail messages published by The Sun in July 2004, in which the prosecutor called for three "front-page" corruption indictments before Election Day. The gambling investigation never came up, according to Margolis.

In an interview published yesterday in The New York Times, DiBiagio compared his fate to that of eight U.S. attorneys from around the country who have been fired more recently.

DiBiagio did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.

Still, members of Congress, some who have criticized the recent dismissals as unwarranted and politically motivated, are now seeking answers about DiBiagio's departure in 2004.

"It is a story which may show inappropriate political pressure on the Baltimore attorney for pursuing an investigation related to gaming, which implicated subordinates of the governor," Sen. Arlen Spector, a Pennsylvania Republican, said yesterday at a hearing in Washington. "Or it may be explained in what the story refers to as his pressure tactics and performance rating. So there are a lot of nuances."

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called yesterday for an investigation into DiBiagio's firing.

"Anytime allegations arise that politics may have interfered in the prosecution of federal cases, we must take it seriously," Cardin said in a statement. He said he was "not familiar with the specific conditions surrounding" DiBiagio's departure.

When DiBiagio announced his resignation two years ago, he insisted that the departure was long planned, citing personal reasons. But in an opinion piece in The Sun a little more than a year later, DiBiagio wrote that he had been under constant pressure to aim low and look the other way from potentially corrupt officials.

"The pressure finally culminated in a threat that I would be `hurt' if I continued," he wrote in January 2006.

In the first half of 2004, DiBiagio's office had subpoenaed records from top Ehrlich aides while pursuing allegations of improper influence by gambling interests.

Lawyers familiar with the investigation said it centered on Richard E. Hug, Ehrlich's chief campaign fundraiser, who solicited donations from horse racing and gambling interests for a nonprofit group, Citizens for Maryland's Future. The group planned to run ads supporting Ehrlich's initiative to legalize slot machines in Maryland. Hug has denied any wrongdoing.

But after the federal investigators began their probe, the donation effort was abandoned and the investigation was closed, according to prosecutors and attorneys involved.

In the Times article, DiBiagio added details, alleging a direct threat from Ehrlich's associates. If he pursued the investigations, he told the Times, "the practical impact was to intimidate my office and shut down the investigations."

He also told the FBI of the "threat" against him, the article said. Officials at the Justice Department said yesterday that they had no information about any formal complaint by DiBiagio.

In the end, hobbled by the political pressure, he decided to resign, DiBiagio said.

Ehrlich confirmed last year that the federal prosecutor had subpoenaed records from his communications director, Paul Schurick, and said that his office had cooperated. But there was no basis for the investigation, Ehrlich said in an interview yesterday.

"It was basically just a fishing expedition, I think," Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich's influence was largely responsible for the selection of DiBiagio, whom the governor had known since they were young lawyers. But the former governor said he tried to keep an arms-length relationship with him to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

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