WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is fighting in court to keep secret a government report concluding that it leaked confidential and damaging information against a former prosecutor accused of bungling a high-profile terror trial.
Justice attorneys say they can’t disclose all the contents of the December 2004 report by the department’s inspector general without violating employees’ privacy.
However, ex-Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard G. Convertino of Detroit said the Justice Department violated his own privacy rights by revealing to the news media that he was the subject of an internal ethics inquiry after he criticized the Bush administration’s counterterrorism strategy.
Two people who have seen the full report confirmed it rules out Convertino as a suspect in the leak case. Those people described the report’s findings to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because it is sealed under a Justice Department protective order.
A heavily edited version of the report is included in court documents filed in Washington. It concludes that investigators “did not find sufficient evidence to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, who leaked this information.”
It narrowed the source to a universe of about 30 prosecutors and other Justice Department officials, in Washington and Detroit, all of whom denied leaking the information. The full report also concluded that Convertino “was not the source because he did not have access to all of the information,” according to related court documents filed by his attorneys.
Convertino’s attorney, Stephen M. Kohn, would not comment on details in the government’s sealed report. But he accused the Justice Department of sealing it to cover up its own misconduct.
“There’s nothing in that report that should not be out there in the public domain so people could assess the hypocrisy and misconduct of the Department of Justice,” Kohn said Jan. 12. “Withholding it, I believe, is part of a cover-up.”
A department spokesman declined to comment. But in documents filed in federal court, government attorneys Jeffrey M. Smith and Jonathan E. Zimmerman rejected Convertino’s request as “attempts to do exactly what he contends was done to him.” They accused the former prosecutor of “an attempt to discredit or embarrass individuals who were the subjects of that investigation.”
For two years, Convertino led the government’s case in the nation’s first terrorism trial after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was removed in 2003 after the Justice Department concluded he had withheld evidence that could have proved the innocence of the four defendants accused of being a Detroit terror cell.
Convictions of three of the four men were later overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct. The fourth was acquitted.
Four months after he was taken off the case, a January 2004 article in the Detroit Free Press cited anonymous Justice Department sources saying Convertino was under investigation for misconduct during the trial. The Justice leak violated Convertino’s privacy rights, his attorneys said.
Convertino also maintains he was targeted because, shortly before he was removed from the case, he criticized the Bush administration during a Senate hearing on funding for terrorism prosecutions. The sealed report does not cite that congressional hearing or identify it as a motive for the leak, according to the people who have seen the report.
Convertino was indicted last March for obstructing justice in the terror trial and in another case. The criminal case continues against Convertino, as does his civil lawsuit against the Justice Department.
Leaks are also at the heart of another high-profile trial that begins this week against former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
In both cases, attorneys said, the Bush administration sought to discredit its critics with information that was made public illegally. And in both cases, lawyers said, the government sought to cover up its leaks.
Libby is charged with perjury and obstruction for allegedly lying to investigators about his conversations with reporters regarding CIA operative Valerie Plame. Plame believes her status was revealed as retribution for comments her husband, Joseph Wilson, made about the Bush administration’s prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Like Convertino, Plame and Wilson are suing the Bush administration because of the leak.
“Anything you want to do to people who go off the reservation is fair game,” said Melanie Sloan, the lawyer for Plame and Wilson.