A Real Case Of Snakebite
How a trophy terrorism prosecution morphed into a big mud fight
The men were initially indicted on document fraud charges. Hmimssa pleaded guilty to multiple felonies but negotiated a reduced sentence by agreeing to become Convertino's key witness against the others. Convertino began prepping for the fraud trial, launched a terrorism investigation, and began working on a superseding indictment alleging that the men were actually part of a "sleeper operational combat cell" with designs on committing terrorist acts.
That's when things began to go sour. Convertino got little help or guidance, he says, from the Justice Department. "There was no sense of exigency," he told U.S. News, adding that he was given one FBI counterintelligence agent with no criminal trial experience. When he begged for more help, he says, Jeffrey Breinholt, then the acting chief of the counterterrorism section at Justice headquarters in Washington, assigned him a tax attorney. But the lawyer soon left the department. Convertino's request for a full-time appellate attorney during the trial was denied.
Turf wars began to brew. FBI agents in Iowa were incensed that the Secret Service had stolen their thunder by arresting Hmimssa. When the agents finally wrested control of Hmimssa from the Secret Service, he stopped talking. It took Convertino weeks before prosecutors in Iowa turned over the Hmimssa evidence.
Through late 2001 and early 2002, Convertino tried to push the case forward, but no one in Washington was much interested in it, he says. Given the Justice Department's focus on the 9/11 investigation, perhaps Convertino shouldn't have been surprised. It "was a sleeper-cell case," he explains. "There were no bombs or booms, because the arrests were made before there was destruction or death."
The interest level soon changed. In August 2002, Florida federal prosecutor Barry Sabin became the acting chief of the terrorism and violent crime section at Justice. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be briefed on Convertino's case. At the time, the Justice Department was working to centralize decision making on terrorism cases at headquarters. But after Convertino objected to repetitive requests for updates on the case by Washington, he was accused of not being a team player.
Things went from bad to worse. Sabin and Breinholt, the Washington brass, quarreled with Convertino and Corbett over how to structure the charges to be contained in a superseding indictment. Sabin was intent on achieving some uniformity in how the various U.S. attorneys' offices handled terrorism cases by giving headquarters a bigger role. Convertino resented what he saw as a cookie-cutter approach. Finally, the new indictments were handed up, and things began looking better. Breinholt sent Convertino a congratulatory E-mail from Washington and said he was "enjoying the speculation" that Convertino's case and a Seattle terrorism case were "part of an orchestrated nationwide" enforcement program. "The press gives us more credit than we deserve," Breinholt wrote, "not knowing that the timing was largely happenstance."
The harmony between Detroit and Washington didn't last long. In December 2002, Sabin, still the acting chief of the terrorism section, informed Convertino that he was sending a trial attorney named Joe Capone to Detroit to help with the case. Capone didn't show up until late February 2003, just as jury selection was beginning. Fed up, Corbett, Convertino's supervisor, fired off a blistering E-mail to U.S. Attorney Collins. "In the 25 years that I have worked for the Department of Justice I have never seen anything approaching this level of micromanagement," he wrote. "The actions of Barry Sabin and his minions to insinuate themselves into this trial are nothing more than a self-serving effort to justify the existence of his unit. They have rendered no assistance, and are in my judgment adversely impacting on both trial preparation and trial strategy." Capone believed the prosecutors in Detroit were simply freezing him out. Convertino and Corbett were told that their battles with Washington were "unacceptable" and that the brass there was aggrieved by their perceived lack of cooperation.