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The government apology was striking — a reminder, said one Arab-American leader, of “why we feel America is such a great country.” On Aug. 31, in a 60-page mea culpa, the U.S. Department of Justice asked federal district court Judge Gerald Rosen to dismiss its first major trial victory in the war on terror, acknowledging errors in its prosecution of three Detroit-area immigrants from Morocco. The judge, who ordered a new trial, saluted the department for making “the legally and ethically correct decision,” and upholding “the highest and best tradition” of the department. The following day, however, government attorneys submitted the brief, word for word, in another case in Washington, D.C. This second submission might turn the apology from an act of principle to an act of scapegoating, because it came in response to a whistleblower complaint. That suit was filed several months ago by Richard Convertino, the prosecutor who worked on the terror matter. The Justice Department’s document savages Convertino’s work. In June 2003 Convertino convinced a Detroit jury to convict two men of supporting terrorism, and another of document fraud. Two months later, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked Convertino to testify in a hearing about document fraud and its role in terrorism. The prosecutor was willing. The brass objected. According to his lawsuit, Convertino had vocally criticized his bosses for wanting easy victories and hindering his ability to introduce other evidence into the case or to charge other suspects. They already had reprimanded him for insubordination. Also, says the lawsuit, officials distrusted Grassley, who sometimes held up appointments and leveled criticism at the department. After learning that Convertino wasn’t coming, Grassley called Attorney General John Ashcroft to complain. Then the senator subpoenaed Convertino. When Grassley introduced him at the Finance Committee hearing a few days later, he praised the 43-year-old Assistant U.S. attorney for winning the convictions. “You are a model public citizen, and as far as I’m concerned, you should be hailed as a hero,” Grassley said. A line of department officials sat in the row behind Convertino. “I heard them go ‘ugh,’” Convertino recalls. “I thought, ‘I’m dead.’ “ Back in Detroit, Convertino wasn’t treated like a hero. The U.S. Attorney removed the nine-year member of Detroit’s organized crime strike force from the case and asked the department’s office of professional responsibility to look into whether he tampered with other prosecutors’ witnesses and hid evidence. His replacements in the case told Judge Rosen that he had withheld a jailhouse letter that might have helped the defendants. Then “department officials” leaked details of the internal probe to the Detroit Free Press. In February, Convertino sued the department and several of his bosses, claiming their disclosure was reprisal for his criticism and violated the Privacy Act. Convertino’s work received royal scrutiny. In response to a December order by Judge Rosen to check for failures to disclose relevant material, three Justice lawyers spent nine months reviewing it. In the August filing, this team told Rosen that Convertino not only had withheld material, he had failed to correct false testimony, interfered with access to witnesses, and generally had worn blinders while preparing the case. The department said it would not retry the men on terrorism charges. Convertino’s defense lawyer, William Sullivan Jr. of Winston & Strawn, says the prosecutor never had access to much of the cited evidence. And he disputes the reviewers’ interpretation: “Even if Rick had seen this material, there’s no way it could have changed the nature of the verdict.” The inclusion of the mea culpa in Convertino’s lawsuit promises to intensify the mud fight. The submission seems to undermine the department’s position in the case: It is arguing that the suit be dismissed on legal grounds, but now offers the judge a detailed litany of facts. “Is this a serious legal pleading, or is it a document to discredit Richard Convertino?” says Convertino’s civil lawyer Stephen Kohn of Washington, D.C.’s Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto. Department spokesman Charles Miller says that the department did not formally file the document, but gave it to the judge in the retaliation case as a courtesy. He declined to discuss the logic for supplying it. “That’s as far as I can go,” Miller said. The prosecutor leading the terrorism case review, Craig Morford, says the lawyers handling the whistleblower case had no say in his work. He insists his team was reviewing only whether the defendants received a fair trial, not whether Convertino was a rogue. “That’s a topic for another day and another group of investigators,” he says. The department says Convertino is currently the subject of two internal investigations. The leak of his file is the focus of a third.

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