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Judge Won't Delay Libby's Prison Term for Appeal

Judge Won't Delay Libby's Prison Term for Appeal

By Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 14, 2007; 2:32 PM

 

A federal judge today ordered I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to report to prison within weeks to begin serving a 30-month sentence for lying to federal investigators about his role in disclosing a covert CIA officer's identity to the media.

In ruling that Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff must begin his prison term, probably within six to eight weeks, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton rejected defense attorneys' request to allow Libby to remain free on bond while his attorneys appeal his conviction for perjury and obstructing justice.

Judge Won't Delay Libby's Prison Term for Appeal

By Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 14, 2007; 2:32 PM

 

A federal judge today ordered I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to report to prison within weeks to begin serving a 30-month sentence for lying to federal investigators about his role in disclosing a covert CIA officer's identity to the media.

In ruling that Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff must begin his prison term, probably within six to eight weeks, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton rejected defense attorneys' request to allow Libby to remain free on bond while his attorneys appeal his conviction for perjury and obstructing justice.

At the conclusion of a two-hour hearing today, Walton, who presided over Libby's trial, said he disagreed with defense attorneys' contention that Libby's trial had generated a series of close legal questions and judicial rulings that might be reversed by higher courts.

Libby's lawyers said they plan to ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to issue an emergency order delaying the sentence.

When he imposed sentence last week, Walton told Libby that the evidence of his guilt had been "overwhelming" and warned that Libby was unlikely to win a reversal of his conviction in appellate courts.

For that reason, Walton said, he was not inclined to release Libby on bond during his appeal, a process that could last until the end of President Bush's term in office in 2008. The judge agreed, however, to defer his decision until today.

In addition to determining the immediate fate of Libby, a 56-year-old lawyer who became a national security expert in the government's highest echelons, Walton's decision will have an uncomfortable ripple effect on the White House.

By ordering Libby to begin serving his term as soon as federal authorities select a prison, Walton added to pressure on President Bush to consider whether to pardon Libby--a delicate decision that White House aides had hoped to avoid as long as possible.

Unless Walton's decision is overturned swiftly by a higher court, Bush will have to choose between allowing a key architect of his administration to go to prison and the political consequences of reversing the judge's sentencing decision. The decision is further complicated by the Libby case's roots in the Iraq war, the issue that has badly eroded Bush's standing with the public.

Libby supporters, mainly loyal conservatives and GOP activists, already are lobbying Bush to employ his presidential authority on behalf of Libby, who was Cheney's top aide until he resigned the day of his indictment in October 2005. After Walton's ruling, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that "Scooter Libby still has the right to appeal, and therefore the President will continue not to intervene in the judicial process. The President feels terribly for Scooter, his wife and their young children, and all that they're going through."

Libby remained stoic as Walton announced his decision, but his wife, Harriet Grant, wiped away tears. His attorneys shook their heads ruefully.

Libby and his wife were escorted by U.S. marshals through a back entrance of the courtroom for processing by federal probation officials.

Walton opened the hearing by noting the intense passions that surround the case. Since he imposed the sentence, the judge said, "I received a number of angry, harassing, mean-spirited phone calls and letters, some of those related to wishing bad things upon me and my family." Walton added: "Obviously, I find that very troubling. Those types of things cannot and will not have an impact on my decision."

Libby's 2 1/2-year sentence is relatively severe punishment for the crimes he committed, according to sentencing guidelines. He was also fined $250,000. His lawyers had sought probation.

In March, a federal jury found Libby guilty of four felonies for lying to FBI agents and the grand jury that investigated the leak of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. The jury convicted Libby of two perjury counts and one count each of obstructing justice and making false statements about when and how he learned Plame's identity--and what he told journalists about her.

The central question in the investigation was whether top administration officials had violated an intelligence law in 2003, when several told a handful of Washington journalists that a fierce, early critic of the Iraq war was married to Plame.

Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, had been sent by the CIA in 2002 to the African nation of Niger to evaluate reports that Iraq had sought to buy yellowcake uranium for a nuclear weapons program there. Wilson concluded that the reports were unfounded, and, shortly after the war began, publicly accused the administration of distorting his findings to justify the invasion to the American people.

Prosecutors alleged that Libby told reporters about Plame's role at the CIA as part of an administration strategy to discredit Wilson by insinuating that the agency had chosen him for the Niger mission based on nepotism. Libby's attorneys unsuccessfully argued that he had innocently misremembered his conversations about Plame because he was too busy with more important national security work.

In court papers filed in recent days and during today's hearing, Libby's attorneys argued that he should remain free on bond during his appeal because the trial produced several legal issues that pose a "close question" on which appellate courts could easily disagree with the trial judge.

Those questions, the defense argued, include whether Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald had the constitutional authority to prosecute Libby; whether Walton was correct in prohibiting an expert on human memory from testifying for the defense; whether the defense should have been allowed to introduce more detailed evidence of the classified national security matters weighing on Libby's mind at the time of his conversations about Plame; and whether the defense should have been permitted to call Andrea Mitchell, NBC News's chief foreign affairs correspondent, as a witness in an attempt to discredit testimony from a colleague, Tim Russert, the host of NBC's "Meet the Press." Russert was a critical prosecution witness.

One of Libby's attorneys, Lawrence S. Robbins, contended in court today that the Justice Department had given the special counsel greater authority than the law allows.

"Mr. Fitzgerald has the broadest delegation of prosecutorial authority of any special counsel I know of," Robbins said. In particular, Robbins said, Fitzgerald at one point signed court papers regarding the handling of classified information at the trial that only the attorney general or an assistant was allowed to sign.

Fitzgerald countered that, even if that were true, the defense did not object to his signature in a timely way that would have enabled him to obtain a different signature.

In broader terms, prosecutors said in a court filing, "none of these issues is 'substantial' or likely to result in reversal or an order for a new trial." As a result, they argued, Libby should begin his sentence as soon as federal prison authorities can arrange where he will serve it.

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