December 23, 2003, - 3:50 pm

Punting Justice

By Debbie Schlussel
A U.S. Attorney is endangering the nation’s only jury conviction of terrorists since 9/11. Tuesday, three men convicted in the first post-9/11 terror trial were supposed to be sentenced. Instead, these members of Detroit’s "sleeper cell" may go free.

Their defense attorneys are getting help from an unlikely source – U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Collins, the Justice Department’s top official in Detroit, who is leading the way to overturn these convictions.

Richard Convertino, the star prosecutor of the Detroit U.S. Attorney’s Office, won the case – and Collins’ actions may cost Convertino his job.

A seasoned litigator, Convertino helped prosecute the infamous Bank and Credit Commerce International (BCCI), put a corrupt Oklahoma state senator behind bars and got convictions against Detroit’s Mafia and gang leaders.

He took the same aggressive stance against the terrorists, who were arrested less than a week after 9/11. But Collins and Justice Department bureaucrats back in Washington were more worried about taking risks, justifying budgets and preserving fiefdoms than stopping terror. They opposed and sabotaged Convertino’s prosecution of the terrorists every step of the way.

According to several of his colleagues, Collins’ political ambitions also played a role: Popularity with Detroit’s large Muslim community would be an asset in any future run for political office.

The same colleagues say Collins was infuriated to see subordinate Convertino win headlines with the prosecution.

Collins had another reason to oppose the prosecution. Two of the convicted men received thousands in funding for commercial driving lessons and attempts to get hazardous hauling certificates from Access, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. The Muslim welfare group gets millions in federal money for such "job training."

A conviction would embarrass Access leaders, who meet with Collins monthly. That includes Noel Saleh, Access’ vice president and attorney, who stated in Collins’ presence, "I could be convicted of terrorism," because he funded Hezbollah.

Convertino’s June conviction of the terrorists caught the attention of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who wanted Convertino to testify at a hearing on false identity documents and terrorism. When Convertino informed his bosses, they pulled him off the terror-cell case. Also removed: co-counsel Keith Corbett, chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force and a 25-year federal prosecutor.

Grassley had to subpoena Convertino and hailed him as a "hero" at the hearing. Collins responded by trying to demote Convertino and Corbett. He had staff search Convertino’s previous case files, including that of the sleeper cell trial, looking for what Grassley calls the "slightest foot-fault" in Convertino’s stellar career.

Convertino’s only comment: "This whole situation is ridiculous and unnecessary, and unfortunately has caused considerable embarrassment to the Department of Justice."

Collins’ attack on Convertino has seriously jeopardized the terrorism convictions. His staff found a letter they claim was improperly withheld from the terrorists’ defense attorneys, giving them grounds to file a motion for a new trial. That motion prompted a long Dec. 12 hearing smearing Convertino and Corbett.

Prosecutors have to turn exculpatory evidence over to defense attorneys. But the rambling, nonsensical letter accused the Bush family of being drug dealers and claimed that the prosecution’s key witness planned to overthrow the U.S. "electorally." Its author is convicted drug dealer Butch Jones, who’s facing the federal death penalty and looking to make a deal. He has suddenly clammed up.

Before becoming U.S. attorney, Collins represented Jones, one of the nation’s most notorious drug kingpins and gang leaders, and is privately fighting his Washington superiors on their insistence on the death penalty for him. (Justice Department sources say that, in an internal memo, he’s now trying to claim Jones as a source of anti-terror info.)

Michael Schwartz, former head of the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission, which investigates ethics violations by attorneys, said the letter was not "exculpatory at all" and a "proverbial tempest in a teapot where there was no impropriety in failing to turn over what turned out to be a fairly useless document."

Another complication: Attorney General John Ashcroft repeatedly commented on the trial on national TV – violating a gag order in the case, for which the judge admonished him Tuesday. This may make it harder for Ashcroft to intervene to stop Collins’ own misbehavior.

Sadly, Collins’ zeal to defame Convertino and Corbett is matched only by questions raised about both his desire to stop terrorists and his ethics. He refused to cancel his appearance as guest of honor and keynote speaker at a November dinner co-hosted by a Hamas money launderer and author of an anti-Semitic book. At an awards luncheon, he was the "date" of a man videotaped raising money for a terrorist group (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), calling him, "a great American."

When his office discovered that two defense attorneys in the terrorism trial stole a federal judge’s stationery and forged the judge’s signature, Collins overlooked the crimes.

Sen. Grassley is pursuing the issue of Collins’ retaliation against Convertino, sending four letters and making several phone calls to Ashcroft and Collins, saying it "will not be tolerated." He has yet to receive a satisfactory response from either and has threatened hearings.

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