WASHINGTON -- Former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby faces the prospect of becoming the first high-level White House official to go to prison since the Nixon administration, after a federal judge sentenced him yesterday to serve 2 1/2 years for perjury and obstruction of justice.
At the sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton raised the possibility that he would order Libby to jail while he pursues an appeal. That prospect is expected to prompt Libby's supporters to intensify their calls for President Bush to grant him a pardon, although a White House spokeswoman offered a discouraging view of that possibility yesterday.
Libby, a former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was sentenced for obstructing the federal investigation into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. His lawyers argued that he should serve no prison time because of his record of public service and other good works.
But Walton sentenced Libby at the higher end of federal guidelines and indicated that he was inclined to order Libby to surrender to authorities in a few weeks. He also ordered Libby to pay a $250,000 fine and serve a period of supervised release for two years after his incarceration is complete, among other requirements.
Stoic and somewhat ashen-faced, Libby faced the court, flanked by his lawyers, and briefly addressed Walton before the sentence was pronounced.
"It is respectfully my hope that the court will consider my whole life," Libby said, adding that he also appreciated the "many courtesies" he received from court staff during the trial.
Walton told him that he had a betrayed a public trust.
"People who occupy these types of positions, where they have the welfare and security of the nation in their hands, have a special obligation to not do anything that might create a problem," the judge said. Libby repeatedly lied to investigators, Walton said, which warranted stiff punishment to ensure public confidence in the judicial system.
In handing down the 30-month sentence, Walton rejected pleas for leniency from scores of notable figures, including former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and outgoing World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz. Neither Bush nor Cheney was among the 150 people who wrote letters of support.
Others wrote to urge against a light sentence, saying it would send a message that powerful and connected people received special treatment in the courts - an argument Walton seemed to embrace.
Libby, 56, was convicted in March on four of five counts of lying to FBI agents and a grand jury in a case that is rooted in the administration's decision to go to war in Iraq.
Plame was identified as a CIA expert on weapons of mass destruction in news reports in July 2003, shortly after her husband, former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times challenging a claim that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear material in Niger. Wilson had been sent to the African nation by the CIA to assess the claim a year earlier; he found it baseless.
According to evidence presented at the trial, Libby and the office of the vice president were keen on discrediting Wilson and used the identity of his wife to suggest that he got the assignment due to nepotism.
Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald was appointed to see whether Libby or other officials who had spoken to reporters violated a law prohibiting disclosure of the identify of covert agents. He alleged at trial that Libby concocted a story that he first learned about Plame from reporters, a fact that would insulate him from liability.
The prosecution was controversial because Libby was not the first person to disclose the identify of Plame to journalists and because neither he nor anyone else was charged with breaking the law protecting agents.
Defense lawyers argued yesterday that it was "irrational" to send Libby to jail under those circumstances.
"No one was ever charged. Nobody ever pleaded guilty," attorney William Jeffress said. "The government did not establish the existence of an offense."
Fitzgerald told Walton that the lies Libby told created a "house of mirrors" that threw investigators off course and prolonged the investigation.
Walton indicated that he was disinclined to permit bail in Libby's case because it did not appear there was a substantial chance that he would win his appeal.
The remarks appeared to throw the defense team off guard. Lawyer Ted Wells asked for the opportunity to brief Walton on the merits of the appeal. Walton relented and set a hearing on the issue for June 14.
If he does not grant bail, Walton indicated that, according to the Bureau of Prisons, Libby would have to surrender to authorities within 45 to 60 days.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times. Wire services contributed to this article.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for lying and obstructing federal investigators.
Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff did not apologize and has maintained his innocence, although he did ask the judge for leniency.
President Bush and Cheney each offered somber statements of support for Libby yesterday.
Previous coverage at baltimoresun.com/leak
[Source: Associated Press]