Detroit News

Friday, December 3, 2004

U.S. widens probe of prosecutor

2 drug cases added to the investigation of the assistant U.S. Attorney who ran the terrorism case.

Convertino investigation

Who he is: Richard G. Convertino is an assistant U.S. Attorney who started in Detroit in 1990. Since January, he has been on temporary assignment working for a U.S. Senate committee in Washington.

What's at issue: An outside prosecutor has been named to review whether Convertino mishandled two drug cases involving 31 defendants.

The history: In September, a federal judge dismissed terror convictions after investigators found Convertino failed to turn over evidence to defense lawyers.

DETROIT -- The Justice Department has secretly opened an investigation into two drug cases handled by a Detroit prosecutor already accused of misconduct in a high-profile terrorism case.

It's the first indication that the department's review of Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard G. Convertino, a 14-year prosecutor in Detroit, has expanded beyond his handling of the nation's first post-September 11 terrorism trial. In that case, a judge dismissed terror convictions in September against two men after the Justice Department acknowledged that Convertino withheld key evidence from defense attorneys.

Justice Department officials have assigned Anthony M. Bruce, the chief of organized crime investigations in Buffalo, N.Y., to review allegations of misconduct by Convertino in two major drug-gang cases prosecuted in Detroit in the late 1990s, said U.S. Attorney Michael Battle, who heads the Buffalo office. Although Bruce was named in April, his assignment had not been disclosed.

The revelation suggests the government's investigation of Convertino's prosecutions has broadened and could result in the dismissal of other convictions in prior cases. Convertino handled dozens of high-profile cases during his time in Detroit, prosecuting gang, drug and mafia cases.

William M. Sullivan, a lawyer for Convertino, said the government's investigation is unprecedented, and indicates an obsession with tarnishing a "decorated prosecutor who always strove to keep his community safe."

In court filings Thursday, the government acknowledged that allegations of misconduct in a 1998 drug case were being reviewed.

"The allegations merit some investigation and ... additional time will probably be necessary to complete the investigation," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Gaedeke in Detroit.

31 convictions at stake

The two drug cases now under review involve 31 convicted defendants and were based in part on the testimony of numerous defendants who agreed to testify for the government.

In October, lawyers for Joseph Stines -- an alleged drug kingpin -- asked U.S. District Court Judge Paul Borman to dismiss Stines' 1999 conviction of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, citing Convertino's alleged misconduct in the Detroit terror case. Stines is serving a 20-year prison term. Several defendants filed sworn statements claiming that prosecutors intimidated them into lying.

"As in the (Detroit terror case), Convertino failed to disclose evidence," said Raymond Burkett, a lawyer for Stines. The lawyers claimed that Convertino misled the jury about a witness' plea deal. They claim jurors should have known that Hans Lee Thomas had a strong incentive to lie on behalf of the government because he received a sharply reduced sentence.

"Convertino went to extreme lengths to portray that no agreement had been reached with Thomas," the lawyers wrote. "The prosecutor failed to disclose that Hans Lee Thomas would be released from prison much earlier."

Convertino told the jury that Thomas' offense carried a 10-year-mandatory minimum sentence, transcripts state.

But after Convertino recommended leniency, U.S. District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds sentenced Thomas to just five years. That transcript is sealed.

Murder follows man's release

After his release, Thomas was charged and convicted of felony murder. Along with two other men, Thomas was charged in the November 2002 murder of 23-year-old Sherryfield Abercrombie, a suspected drug dealer, in Van Buren Township. He was convicted and is now serving a life sentence.

Following Thomas' state conviction, Edmunds sentenced Thomas to another five years in prison in November 2003 that he is serving concurrently with his life sentence in state court -- essentially taking back the break she gave him, said James C. Thomas, his lawyer.

Thomas -- no relation to his client -- defended Convertino.

"Convertino was a tough, no-nonsense prosecutor that didn't hold back on me or the other defense lawyers in that case," said Thomas, who also represented one of the terror trial defendants and criticized Convertino for withholding evidence in that case.

Convertino defended the prosecution of Stines in a December 2003 court filing. He said Stines organized a gang in Ypsilanti in the late 1980s -- dubbed the "Stone Boys" or "Stone Life" to distribute crack cocaine. Stines was seen selling crack in a deal monitored by police surveillance. He was indicted in 1998 and repeatedly offered to cooperate with police.

"The evidence at trial demonstrated that Mr. Stines was a notorious and violent gang leader who was responsible for distributing over 2,000 pounds of crack cocaine," Convertino's lawyer, Sullivan, said Thursday. "The government's filing is yet another installment in its desperate and repeated pattern of retaliaton" against the prosecutor.

Michigan State Police Sgt. Don Bailey, who was a lead investigator in the Stines case, also defended Convertino. "Stines was a violent career criminal. The evidence against him was overwhelming."In Stines' civil lawsuit against the government seeking his release, the U.S. Attorney's Office on Thursday took the unusual step of asking a judge to appoint a lawyer for Stines, acknowledging that his allegations merit review.

"Ultimately, an evidentiary hearing might be required to resolve the issue," the government said.

Review is latest probe

After Bruce was assigned to review Convertino's role in the drug cases in April, his boss met last month with Detroit's Acting U.S. Attorney Craig S. Morford for the first time and discussed the review.

"The Justice Department has stepped up to the plate," said Battle, Bruce's supervisor in Buffalo. Bruce "is going to turn over every stone. There's nobody better to lead an investigation like this."

Bruce, assisted by an outside federal prosecutor, has conducted a series of interviews in Detroit in recent months, with prisoners and prosecutors. He declined to comment.

Morford also declined comment.

This is the latest investigation into the conduct of Convertino, who prosecuted four men on charges on supporting terrorism in 2003. A government review of the case found that prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense and in September, a federal judge threw out the terror convictions against two men and ordered three men retried on document fraud.

Since March, the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section has led a criminal inquiry into Convertino's handling of the terror case. More than 100 witnesses have been interviewed in the ongoing probe handled by a team of outside FBI agents and federal prosecutors that worked out of a special office in Detroit.

Government officials also are reviewing whether Convertino improperly got leniency for a government informant accused of drug dealing in a case in front of U.S. District Judge Julian Abele Cook Jr.

Convertino filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Attorney General John Ashcroft, then U.S. Attorney Jeffrey G. Collins and other top officials in February, claiming they mismanaged the war on terrorism and leaked a damaging internal disciplinary investigation.

In his lawsuit, Convertino disclosed that the U.S. Attorney in Detroit in October 2003 commenced a preliminary review of many of his prior cases that led to the disciplinary referral to the Department's Office of Professional Responsibility.

Since January, Convertino has been assigned to work for a Senate committee. He is scheduled to return next month. A separate request by defense lawyers to hold him in contempt for allegedly violating a court gag order in the terror case is pending.

The former terror case shows no signs of ending.

Government lawyers won a delay in seeking a new indictment against the three men who were arrested Sept. 18, 2001 at a southwest Detroit apartment with phony documents and suspicious drawings.

They are to report to U.S. District Judge Gerald E. Rosen this month on when they will seek a new indictment, which is expected no later than mid-January. A retrial wouldn't happen until at least early summer.

You can reach David Shepardson at (313) 222-2028 or dshepardson@detnews.com.


Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice