With a federal investigation bearing down, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby are taking on their pursuer: the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Maryland.
And they are focusing on a member of that team who has played a key role in many of the office’s biggest cases in recent years.
This week, after accusing prosecutors of conducting a “political witch hunt,” their attorney sent two complaint letters to the Department of Justice, specifically accusing Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise, the head of the fraud and public corruption unit, of having a vendetta against Marilyn Mosby. It’s similar to the recent offensive mounted against Inspector General Isabel Cumming, who investigated Marilyn Mosby’s travel at Mosby’s request.
But the Mosbys aren’t the only people in town bristling at Wise. As his profile has grown — including taking down the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force and working on the Healthy Holly investigation of former Mayor Catherine Pugh — he’s rankled some in the legal community.
Wise, 44, brought still-pending criminal charges against attorneys Joshua Treem and Kenneth Ravenell — both well-respected in the legal community — and was part of what some considered to be an extreme step of executing a search warrants at law offices in that case and another. Attorneys who’ve squared off with him say he generally can be difficult to deal with.
“He’s tough and generally fair, but sometimes I think he goes a little too far,” said Gerard Martin, who represented former Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa in a tax case and worked as a federal prosecutor in the 1970s. “There’s a whole range of things you can do when you have [Wise’s] job, and I think he’s on the range of being as tough as you can be.”
Others have a less favorable view.
“I think the defense bar views him as pompous and unreasonable,” one prominent attorney said, on the condition of anonymity to speak freely.
It’s nothing new for Wise. Dating back to 2008-2010, during his tumultuous tenure as the first ethics investigator for the U.S. House of Representatives, he and his investigators were chased out of congressional offices, denounced by lawmakers as dangerous and criticized by the Congressional Black Caucus for allegedly unfairly targeting Black members of Congress.
David Skaggs, a former six-term Democratic congressman from Colorado who is chairman of the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics, said in an interview this week that Wise is “dauntless and righteous in his pursuit of justice.”
Wise, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined to comment. But on Friday afternoon, Acting U.S. Attorney Jonathan Lenzner defended the office’s integrity: “In general, our office always conducts itself with the utmost integrity, and I think our track record over the years has proven that.”
Facing accusations comes with the job of investigating public figures, said Emmett Davitt, who was the state prosecutor in Maryland from 2010 until 2019.
“I have never in my career as state prosecutor investigated a high-profile case where people didn’t question my motivations,” Davitt said. “You just have to continue to do what you think is right.”
Since bringing the Gun Trace Task Force case in 2017, Wise has been part of prosecution teams taking down Mayor Catherine Pugh (for the Healthy Holly scandal), Del. Cheryl Glenn (for accepting bribes) and a massive prison corruption case on the Eastern Shore, among others.
All of the cases have been investigated in conjunction with the FBI.
The Mosbys’ attorney, A. Scott Bolden, has written twice to the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, alleging that Wise, along with supervisor Stephen Schenning, have “a genuine animus toward my clients that has resulted in the instant vindictive criminal investigation.”
Bolden said the prosecutors made reckless accusations in 2018 that members of the Gun Trace Task Force had been tipped to the federal investigation by a leak in the State’s Attorney’s Office, a claim that Bolden said was designed to embarrass Mosby’s office.
He goes a step further with Wise, noting he made campaign contributions to Marilyn Mosby’s opponents that same year, giving $100 each to candidates Ivan Bates and Thiru Vignarajah. He made no contributions to Mosby, and apparently has never contributed to any other Maryland political campaign, according to the Maryland Board of Elections campaign finance database.
“Because Mr. Wise was unable to remove State’s Attorney Mosby from her elected position through his political contributions and false accusation of leaking information about the GTTF Prosecution, it now appears he has resorted to commencing a vindictive prosecution,” Bolden wrote. “This is not a coincidence.”
The Mosbys and their lawyer have not commented about the matter with The Sun outside of statements they have released.
The line of attack is notable since the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office are partners in fighting crime in the city, including having city prosecutors assigned to the federal prosecutors’ office or collaborating on investigations. In February, Marilyn Mosby praised the former U.S. Attorney Robert Hur just before he stepped down.
Rod Rosenstein, a Republican who was named Maryland’s top federal prosecutor in 2005 and stayed on through the Obama administration before taking the No. 2 role at the Justice Department under President Donald Trump, said there is a chain of command for investigations in the office.
“As a general matter, publicly attacking prosecutors early in an investigation is usually more about public relations than it is about the case,” said Rosenstein, who hired Wise but said he has no knowledge of the Mosby investigation. “Rarely are prosecutors removed from a case, and even if they were, the investigation would go on.”
Wise, a New Jersey native, had worked on the Enron prosecution and the Big Tobacco case at the Justice Department before taking on, at the age of 31, a brand-new congressional ethics office backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to “drain the swamp in Washington.”
At one point during Wise’s stewardship of the office, all eight lawmakers under investigation by his office were Black Democrats, including Reps. Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus pushed back, with one unnamed member telling Politico that there was a “dual standard, one for most members and one for African-Americans.”
Skaggs, the chairman of the ethics board, said Wise’s investigations were fair and vetted by a bipartisan review committee. Wise, who is white and a Democrat, defended the work at the time in part noting that his three-person team included an Arab-American investigator and a Black investigator.
He joined the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2010, investigating public corruption. Many say that would be considered a step down, but Wise said in a 2018 interview that he and his wife wanted to move back to Baltimore, where they attended Johns Hopkins University.
The first Maryland political corruption case Wise worked on was a rare swing and miss for the U.S. Attorney’s Office: extortion, fraud and conspiracy charges against state Sen. Ulysses S. Currie, a Democrat from Prince George’s County. Currie was acquitted of all charges.
“Ulysses Currie is not some trophy to be used to enhance the reputation of federal prosecutors,” Currie’s federal public defender Joseph Evans told the jury in closing arguments. Wise was part of a team of prosecutors on that case.
Wise worked on complex but lower-profile cases over the ensuing years.
The past four years have seen a steady stream of front-page cases. He has pending cases involving heavyweight attorneys Ravenell and Treem, and Stephen Snyder, which promise to be spirited legal battles, as well as a case against a Baltimore Police officer related to the Gun Trace Task Force fallout.
One lawyer who knows Wise said he has framed newspaper headlines from his cases in his office. Wise also is writing a book about the Gun Trace Task Force case for Johns Hopkins University Press — an unusual move for an active prosecutor.
“I understand Mrs. Mosby being upset, but I don’t think [Wise is] picking on her any more than he picks on anybody else,” said Martin, De Sousa’s attorney. “He’s really smart, and he’s very efficient. If somebody’s going to issue me a subpoena, I would hope it wasn’t him.”
Breaking News Alerts
The scope of the investigation into the Mosbys, as well as how long it has been ongoing, is unclear, but Bolden’s second letter to the Justice Department characterizes it as a “criminal tax investigation.”
Several churches and a children’s nonprofit said they had received subpoenas, and a subpoena obtained by The Baltimore Sun shows that prosecutors are seeking financial documents related to Nick and Marilyn Mosby’s campaigns and private businesses. That document was sent by Marilyn Mosby’s campaign treasurer to state elections officials, and obtained by The Sun through a public records request. Bolden accused the prosecutors of leaking the story to the media.
Defense attorney Warren Brown, a Mosby supporter, worked with Wise when he represented Gun Trace Task Force Det. Momodu Gondo. He recalled Wise as “very determined, fastidious, focused.”
“He followed the evidence,” Brown said.
But Brown said he thinks the Mosbys are right to push back. He said he believes the federal prosecutors are likely pursuing a relatively minor case. Brown said he is representing the Mosbys’ former campaign treasurer, Carlton Saunders.
“I’m sure the career prosecutors would love to say that they took down the local D.A. and president of City Council,” Brown said. “I just don’t think it’s enough there for that.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.