March 9, 2009
By Jerry Markon
A federal judge questioned yesterday whether the Justice Department lived up to its plea agreement with a former Florida professor convicted on a terror charge and gave his attorneys another chance to argue for dismissal of new charges that he refused to cooperate with law enforcement officials.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema in Alexandria did not say whether she would throw out the contempt-of-court charges against Sami al-Arian. But she said she was "very concerned" that in bringing the charges, prosecutors might have violated the terms of an agreement that Arian struck with federal prosecutors in Florida when he pleaded guilty to aiding a terror organization.
Arian was accused in Tampa in 2003 of conspiracy to commit racketeering and murder and to aid the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, but his trial ended two years later in an acquittal on some charges and a mistrial on others. He later pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy in one of the nation’s highest-profile terrorism cases and was sentenced to 57 months in prison.
A federal grand jury in Alexandria then indicted Arian in June on separate charges that he refused to testify before a grand jury investigating whether Islamic charities in Northern Virginia were financing terrorists. The former University of South Florida professor accuses prosecutors of violating his Florida plea deal, contending that the government agreed then never to seek his cooperation in future investigations. Arian’s attorney, Jonathan Turley, told Brinkema at a hearing yesterday that the earlier plea agreement "closes the book" on Arian’s case.
A federal appeals court last year rejected Arian’s argument, calling it "dubious," and in January, Brinkema refused to dismiss the contempt charges. But she indicated yesterday that new information provided by federal prosecutors in Alexandria might have changed her mind. Those prosecutors said in a court filing last week that Florida prosecutors had opposed their decision to seek Arian’s testimony in Alexandria and expected they might not be able to obtain it.
"If that was what the mind-set was of the government prosecutors who negotiated the plea agreement, then in my view the government is bound by that," Brinkema said. "Whether this case goes forward or not, there’s something more important here: the integrity of the Department of Justice."
The judge postponed Arian’s trial, which had been scheduled to start yesterday, and gave his attorneys 10 days to file a motion seeking dismissal of the new charges.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg said that the government negotiated the plea agreement in good faith and that it never barred Arian’s subsequent testimony in Alexandria. "The man got an order to testify. He’s got to obey it," he told Brinkema. "It’s not a defense to say, ‘Oh, I thought my plea agreement said I didn’t have to.’"