The Curious Case of Richard Convertino

Here’s a new development in a story I’ve been puzzling over for the better part of a year: the Justice Department is prosecuting one of its own attorneys because, they say, he was too aggressive — to the point of breaking laws — in an effort to catch terrorists on U.S. soil.

It’s a comfort to know the Justice Department has chosen to start reining in the government’s more aggressive anti-terrorism practices. But I can’t help but wonder if the administration isn’t going after the guy for its own reasons.The indicted prosecutor, Richard Convertino, was the lead U.S. attorney on the infamous Detroit “sleeper cell” terror case. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft and President Bush hailed it as an important development in the war on terror. Ashcroft even said the defendants “were suspected of having [fore]knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks.”

Eventually the case crumbled, both in court and behind the scenes, and in late 2004 it was finally thrown out.

The Justice Department blamed Convertino for the collapse, accusing him of withholding key evidence from the defendants, three men charged with participating in a terrorist conspiracy. Convertino accused Justice’s main headquarters in Washington, D.C. of undermining his case from the beginning, first by neglecting to provide him sufficient resources and competent assistance, later by micromanaging the case, and then leaking details to the press that blew key parts of his prosecution. Convertino filed suit against Ashcroft and the Department; Justice just got him indicted.

None of this makes sense on the surface. Convertino, now in private practice, had 14 years of experience as a prosecutor and was considered a “rising star” by his peers. He knew the rules on what must be shared with defendants; he had handled complicated conspiracy cases before — and won. This is the guy who broke the rules and ruined the biggest terror case to come along since the planes hit the World Trade Center?

On the other side, there’s the Bush administration Justice Department — hardly one to shrink from bending (or breaking) rules with the stated goal of catching terrorists. Its lawyers have looked the other way or even aided in circumventing laws against spying on Americans, torture, detainment without charges— why would they swing the other way on how evidence is handled in a key prosecution?

Justice’s claim that Convertino was solely to blame is preposterous. The New York Times found in 2004 that before the case fell apart, DoJ headquarters played a central role in every decision. As the paper reported then:

Documents and interviews with people knowledgeable about the case show that top officials at the Justice Department were involved in almost every step of the prosecution, from formulating strategy to editing the draft indictments to planning how the suspects would be incarcerated.

So why have they pinned it all on Convertino — to the point of winning a criminal indictment?

I don’t know. From reports, it’s clear that Convertino managed to piss off Justice, twice. First he developed a strategy for his case that did not fit the mold Main Justice had created for all terror prosecutions, and created strain between him and his bosses in Washington. Second, he testified for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the biggest critic of the FBI and Justice in Congress, despite Justice’s effort to keep him quiet. As Convertino tells it, that moved Justice to take him down.

Is the Justice Department persecuting Convertino? I don’t know, but it smells like it. There’s more beneath the surface, though. Maybe it will come out at trial — maybe that’s what Convertino’s planning. I suspect he knows some inconvenient truths about his former employer. If these cases move forward, it will be interesting to see who brings who down.