A Real Case Of Snakebite
How a trophy terrorism prosecution morphed into a big mud fight
Somehow, despite all the squabbling, the prosecutors prevailed. In June 2003, El Mardoudi and Koubriti were convicted of providing material support to terrorists and document fraud. Hannan was found guilty only of document fraud. Ali-Haimoud was acquitted.
It might have ended there, but for Sen. Charles Grassley. The Iowa Republican is a longtime critic of both the FBI and the Justice Department. He wanted Convertino and Hmimssa to testify at a hearing on identity fraud and terrorism. When Justice officials declined to make the prosecutor available--standard department policy-Grassley subpoenaed Convertino. Corbett told Convertino that Alan Gershel, the chief of the criminal division in Detroit, had removed them both from the case because he believed that Convertino had long been talking with Grassley about problems with the case. Convertino denies any such contacts but says that Justice Department officials told him they were worried he had "gone off the reservation." Grassley has repeatedly warned Ashcroft not to punish the prosecutors. "In my 20-plus years of working on retaliation cases," says Kris Kolesnik, a former Grassley investigator who now works for the private National Whistleblower Center, "this is the worst case of retaliation I have ever seen." A Justice official assured Grassley in writing that no "adverse personnel actions" would be taken. But Collins, the Detroit U.S. attorney, began a review of all of Convertino's files and then lodged a complaint against him with the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility. Convertino's attorney, William Sullivan, says: "The allegations as reported in the press are untrue and unsubstantiated."
Jailbirds. Collins is also concerned about Convertino's handling of a letter that a colleague received from a convicted drug kingpin, Milton "Butch" Jones. Much of the letter was bizarre; Jones accused President Bush's family of being drug dealers, for instance. But the letter also noted that Jones had gotten to know Hmimssa--who was to be Convertino's star witness--in jail and claimed that Hmimssa began "telling me things." Most important, Jones wrote, Hmimssa described "how he lie'd to the FBI, how he fool'd the `Secret Service' agent on his case." Defense attorneys say the letter should have been given to them under the so-called Brady rule, which requires that prosecutors turn over any material that might be exculpatory. Convertino says neither he nor Corbett believed the letter contained Brady material when they reviewed it before trial. At a December hearing, Gershel, the chief of the criminal division in Detroit, stated he had ordered Corbett to disclose the letter, something Corbett said he could not recall. Corbett declined to comment for this article. Eric Straus, the deputy chief of the newly created counterterrorism section at the Detroit U.S. attorney's office, gave defense attorneys the letter in November 2003 out of "an abundance of caution," even though he believed, sources say, that the letter didn't rise to Brady standards. The judge told Convertino and Corbett the letter was "exculpatory" and should have been delivered to the defense, given the questions about Hmimssa's credibility.
To further complicate matters, before he became U.S. attorney in Detroit, Collins was the defense attorney for Jones, the drug kingpin. Later, the U.S. attorney's office used the Jones letter--without Convertino's or Corbett's knowledge--in a failed effort to avoid the death penalty for the drug kingpin. Convertino says he would have turned over the letter had he known it was used that way. Collins, despite his previous ties to Jones, did not absent himself from a nearly three-hour evidentiary hearing on the letter and watched Jones testify. Collins said in a written statement to U.S. News that he left a prehearing conference in the judge's chambers when the Jones topic came up, but sources say Collins was absent only briefly. Collins also said he had recused himself from Jones's death-penalty case. A few weeks after the hearing, one of Jones's fellow inmates wrote Convertino from prison. Jones had bragged in letters, the inmate wrote, about "how he was paid to lie on an Arab named Youssef Hmimssa to federal prosecutors, to mess up their case against some Arabs being charged with terrorist activities and their possible involvement in the September 11 terrorist attacks."