- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

Three terrorism convictions in Detroit cited last year by Attorney General John Ashcroft as proof that the government’s war on terrorism is working are in jeopardy.

The lead prosecutor in the first terrorism-related trial after the September 11 attacks was removed from the case, as was his boss. Justice Department lawyers and FBI agents in Washington and Detroit are looking into accusations of misconduct.

The U.S. attorney in Detroit, who reassigned lead prosecutor Richard Convertino and supervisor Keith Corbett, has been accused of retaliating against a Senate committee witness, and Mr. Ashcroft was censured by the presiding judge, who has described the case as “a fine kettle of fish.”

Sentencing in the case has been delayed pending a consideration of a defense motion for a new trial.

In June, Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi and Karim Koubriti, both Moroccans, were found guilty of conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism. A co-defendant, Ahmed Hannan, 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.

Mr. Convertino told jurors that the men belonged to a radical Islamic organization that sought to fulfill calls for violence by al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and others against U.S. targets.

After the convictions, Mr. Ashcroft said in a statement that the case showed that the Justice Department would “work diligently to detect, disrupt and dismantle” terrorist cells in the nation and abroad, adding that “every victory in the courtroom brings us closer to our ultimate goal of victory in the war on terrorism.”

Seven months before the verdict, Mr. Ashcroft 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 apologized and promised to “make every effort” to avoid similar statements.

The apology came after U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen said Mr. Ashcroft had “exhibited a distressing lack of care” by making public statements about the then-pending case despite a gag order. The judge later stopped short of charging Mr. Ashcroft with contempt, but said a public rebuke was necessary.

“Despite his unquestioned duty to address the nation on matters of public concern, and his more specific responsibility to keep the nation informed on the war on terror, the attorney general has an equally vital and unyielding obligation, as the nation’s chief prosecutor, to ensure that defendants are accorded a fair trial guaranteed to them under our Constitution,” he said.

Judge Rosen also admonished federal prosecutors in the case for withholding documents he said “should have been turned over” to defense attorneys, and 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 Mr. Corbett, head of the office’s Organized Crime Strike Force Unit, had withheld documents their clients were entitled to see, denying them a fair trial. Mr. Convertino also was accused of making unapproved plea agreements to encourage witnesses to cooperate.

Both prosecutors have denied the accusations vigorously, but were removed from the case in September by U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Collins — just days before Mr. Convertino was scheduled to testify before the Senate Finance Committee.

Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, later accused Mr. Collins of retaliating against Mr. Convertino over the committee appearance, noting that the veteran prosecutor had been subpoenaed and had no choice but to appear and answer questions. The prosecutor was called to testify on identity theft.

Mr. Grassley said that if Mr. Convertino and Mr. Corbett were not put back on the case, “the convictions could be put at risk and the department could be seen as hostile to a congressional witness.”

In an interview, Mr. Convertino called the misconduct accusations “unfounded and unfair.” He called them part of a retaliatory effort because of his Senate testimony and his aggressive prosecutorial record.

“I have been very vocal for a very long time about how we were proceeding on cases and I believe they felt I was ‘off the reservation,’ that I no longer was a team player,” he said. “So they set out to embarrass and humiliate me. … The allegations are untrue, but let the investigations continue because the truth will come out.”

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