- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

A federal prosecutor who obtained guilty verdicts in the nation’s first post-September 11 terrorism trial has accused Attorney General John Ashcroft and other key Justice Department officials of “gross mismanagement” in the war on terrorism.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino said in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that Justice Department executives violated his First Amendment and Privacy Act rights in retaliation for exposing what he called malfeasance and incompetence in the war against terrorists.

The suit, filed late Friday and made public yesterday, is the latest threat to Mr. Convertino’s successful prosecution of three terrorists in a Detroit case Mr. Ashcroft has cited as proof the war on terrorism is working.

The lawsuit said department officials in Washington knowingly disclosed to the media false and misleading information about Mr. Convertino in retaliation for his criticism of the war on terrorism and his testimony to the Senate committee investigating terrorism.

Mr. Convertino became the focus of a Justice Department inquiry after he testified Sept. 9 under subpoena before the Senate Finance Committee and was then removed from the Detroit case.

But the lawsuit said the veteran prosecutor had been “vocal and consistent with his supervisors and officials within the Department of Justice” for more than a year over his concerns about a lack of support, cooperation, effective assistance and resources “that plagued and hindered” the government’s ability to identify and prosecute suspected terrorists.

Justice Department officials yesterday declined to comment on the suit.

In June, Moroccans Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 37, and Karim Koubriti, 24, were convicted of conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism. A co-defendant, Ahmed Hannan, 34, also a Moroccan, was convicted of document fraud. They were accused as members of a “sleeper cell” that schemed to commit terrorist acts against U.S. targets.

Sentencing was delayed pending a defense motion for a new trial, after U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen admonished federal prosecutors in the case for withholding documents he said “should have been turned over” to defense attorneys.

He has ordered the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI in Detroit to determine whether other documents should have been made available.

Defense attorneys said Mr. Convertino and his boss, Keith Corbett, head of the office’s Organized Crime Strike Force, withheld documents their clients were entitled to see, thus denying them a fair trial. Mr. Convertino also was accused of making unapproved plea agreements to encourage witnesses to cooperate.

Both prosecutors denied the accusations.

Earlier in the trial, Mr. Ashcroft was admonished by Judge Rosen for violating a gag order while trial in the matter was pending.

Judge Rosen, who said Mr. Ashcroft “exhibited a distressing lack of care” by making public statements about the then-ongoing trial despite the gag order, has since described the case as “a fine kettle of fish.”

After the convictions in Detroit, Mr. Ashcroft said the case showed the Justice Department would “work diligently to detect, disrupt and dismantle” terrorist cells. Seven months before the verdict, he described the government’s key witness, Youssef Hmimssa, as a “critical tool” in the war on terrorism, a remark that brought the threat of a contempt charge by the judge.

Mr. Ashcroft later apologized and promised to “make every effort” to avoid similar statements.

The suit also said Justice Department officials intentionally disclosed the name of a confidential informant as part of their retaliatory effort, forcing the informant to leave the country and eliminating the government’s ability to obtain from him additional information on pending terrorist plans.

It targets, among others, U.S. Attorney Jeffrey G. Collins in Detroit, who removed Mr. Convertino from office. Mr. Collins has declined comment on the case.

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