WASHINGTON - The federal prosecutor who won the first - and so far only - jury-trial conviction in the war on terror sued the Justice Department yesterday, contending that he was not given adequate support in the case and that senior government officials seemed more interested in publicity than in seeing justice served.
Richard G. Convertino, a 14-year veteran of the U.S. attorney's office in Detroit, also alleged in his lawsuit against Attorney General John Ashcroft and other department administrators that Washington officials acknowledge that they are "enjoying" undeserved credit for keeping the United States safe from domestic terrorism.
While there have been numerous complaints from civil liberties groups since the Sept. 11 attacks, the lawsuit marks the first time someone inside the government's war on terrorism has publicly stated that there are problems within the Justice Department's Terrorism and Violent Crimes Section.
Convertino, 42, a successful federal prosecutor, has been in a dispute with senior Justice Department officials over the Detroit case, in which two men were convicted of conspiring to scout Disneyland, the MGM casino in Las Vegas and the Detroit Metropolitan Airport for future terrorist attacks. The department removed Convertino from the case in September.
At issue is an allegation that Convertino failed to turn over information to defense attorneys about the government's star witness, a concern that has prompted U.S. District Judge Gerald E. Rosen to consider throwing out the two convictions. Convertino's lawsuit could give the judge more reason to question the verdicts.
The Detroit case is the only one of the high-profile 9/11 prosecutions to go to trial. The rest have ended in guilty pleas, which the Department of Justice has offered as proof that the Bush administration is winning the war on terrorism.
The Detroit case began just six days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Federal agents went to a second-story apartment in the city in the middle of the night, looking for a terrorism suspect. He was gone, and they instead found four other men.
Some of them had worked at the airport, and they were arrested and charged with canvassing the airport and other locations for weak points that terrorists could exploit. In Washington, Ashcroft publicly announced that federal law enforcement officials believed that the suspects had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, a statement he later retracted.
Convertino was chosen as the lead prosecutor. While other terrorism prosecutions were ending in plea bargains, Convertino proceeded toward trial.
His lawsuit alleges a "lack of support and cooperation, lack of effective assistance, lack of resources, and intradepartmental infighting that plagued and hindered the investigation and prosecution."
Karim Koubriti and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi were convicted in June of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and document fraud. A third defendant, Amhed Hannan, was acquitted of terrorism but convicted of document fraud. The final defendant, Farouk Ali-Haimoud, was acquitted.
Defense lawyers have complained that information about the truthfulness of the government's lead witness was withheld.
Convertino has denied that information about the government witness was purposely withheld, and he has told the judge that it would not have changed the jury's verdict.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.