Terrorism prosecutor is charged with lying
BY DAVID ASHENFELTER
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
March 30, 2006
Richard Convertino, whose 14-year career as a star federal prosecutor earned him commendations for winning high-profile cases, now faces federal prosecution himself, accused Wednesday of lying to a jury to win terrorism convictions in the first trial to result from the federal 9/11 probe.
A federal grand jury indicted Convertino, 45, and State Department security officer Harry Raymond Smith III, 49, who had been assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, charging them with misleading a jury in the 2003 terrorism trial in Detroit.
Convertino, who resigned last May to enter private practice, flatly denied the accusations, reiterating his claims that he is being targeted for criticizing the Justice Department about its commitment to the war on terrorism. He is suing his former superiors.
"This indictment is purely vindictive. ... If they believe they can scare me off, they've picked the wrong guy to be their scapegoat," he said.
Smith's lawyer, Matthew Leitman of Troy, also denied the charges and noted his client's service to his country.
Both men are accused of lying about the existence of photographs that could have damaged the prosecution's case in the terror trial, which resulted in two convictions that were later set aside at the request of Convertino's bosses.
Had the photos been presented at trial, they could have undercut claims that a sketch found in the terror defendants' apartment was intended to be used for an attack on a Jordanian military hospital.
The indictment also says Convertino lied to a judge about a drug defendant's cooperation in this and other terrorism investigations so that Convertino could get a substantial reduction in the man's sentence.
Convertino and Smith are charged with conspiring to obstruct justice and make false declarations, obstruction of justice and making a materially false declaration before a court.
If convicted, Convertino -- who prosecuted Detroit mob cases and NBA star Chris Webber for lying to a grand jury about money he received as a college player -- could face 30 years in prison and a $1-million fine. Smith could face 20 years in prison and a $750,000 fine. No arraignments were set.
Photos in question
The case revolves around the convictions in June 2003 of two North African immigrants, Karim Koubriti, 27, and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 40, for conspiring to provide support to terrorists.
A year later, the charges were dismissed at the request of the U.S. Attorney's Office, which said Convertino withheld key evidence and allowed witnesses, including Smith, to mislead the jury.
During the terrorism trial, the prosecution maintained that a sketch found in Koubriti's flat was a terrorist targeting diagram of a military hospital in Amman, Jordan. In support of that theory, Smith testified that the sketch was consistent with what he, Convertino and FBI case agent Michael Thomas found when they toured the site. Thomas was given immunity to testify before the grand jury.
When defense lawyers asked Smith whether he had taken any photos of the site, Smith said no. Wednesday's indictment, however, said Smith took photos of the site in March 2002, but they didn't turn out, so he asked a colleague to reshoot them. The indictment said the photos were turned over to Convertino, who failed to correct Smith's testimony or disclose the photos.
Although witnesses at the trial said a dead tree was depicted in the sketch, the photos showed no such landmark, records show. That could have raised doubts that the sketch was of the hospital.
Convertino also is accused of misleading U.S. District Judge Julian Cook in July 2003 about the extent of cooperation that drug suspect Marwan Farhat provided to the government. The indictment didn't name Cook and Farhat.
Farhat, who pleaded guilty to drug charges, was in line for a 9- to 11 1/4 -year sentence. Convertino persuaded a reluctant Cook to sentence Farhat to eight months, which was covered by the time he had served in jail, and seal the records.
This week, a defense lawyer charged in court papers that Convertino engineered other huge sentencing reductions on behalf of drug dealers who assisted the government, then had the proceedings sealed to hide what he had done. He has denied those accusations.
Deputy federal defender Richard Helfrick, who represents Koubriti, said his client -- who was later indicted in alleged insurance fraud -- was pleased to learn of the indictment and plans to be there when Convertino is arraigned. Koubriti is out on bond pending the fraud trial.
Meanwhile, Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said the indictment is proof the system sometimes catches its mistakes.
"I don't think anything can make up for the injury that was caused to the innocent men who were caught in the middle of this prosecution," he said.
Contact DAVID ASHENFELTER at 313-223-4490.
Copyright © 2006 Detroit Free Press Inc.