Hauling Ash into court

News Hits hopes like hell that U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Rosen has the balls to haul America’s chief law enforcement officer into court on contempt charges.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft allegedly violated a court gag order — not just once, but twice — according to a motion filed last week by defense attorneys representing four men tried in Detroit this year on charges that they conspired to support terrorism.

The motion says that on Oct. 23, 2001, U.S. Justice Department lawyers and defense attorneys agreed to not speak to the press about the case because it might bias the jury pool. However, a week later, Ashcroft announced that the four defendants were suspected of having knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks and had links to al Qaeda. Ashcroft’s comments prompted a closed hearing in the judge’s chambers in November 2001. At that time, Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff assured defense counsel by phone that the Justice Department would not violate the gag order in the future. Shortly afterward, Ashcroft publicly recanted his statement about the four suspects.

But about a month after the trial began in March 2003, Ashcroft again violated the gag order while attempting to bolster the credibility of the government’s star witness.

The government’s case largely rested on the testimony of Youssef Hmimssa — a convicted felon, self-avowed “scam artist” and, initially, a defendant in the case. For several days Hmimssa sat on the witness stand and swore his former roommates were terrorists.

On April 17, 2003, immediately after Hmimssa completed his testimony, Ashcroft spoke at a Washington, D.C., press conference touting the Justice Department’s success in the war on terror. Documents submitted to Rosen by the defense say the attorney general noted that Hmimssa “pled guilty to multiple criminal charges, and is currently cooperating in the Detroit case. His testimony has been of value … of substantial value in that respect. Such cooperation is a critical tool for our war on terrorism.”

Two of the defendants were found guilty of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, another was convicted of document fraud and one was acquitted of all charges.

Defense attorney James Thomas is convinced that Ashcroft’s statements were deliberate.

“The fact that he would volunteer Mr. Hmimssa’s name specifically, vouching for the value of Mr. Hmimssa as a witness and trying to establish his credibility after we spent three days trying to destroy it — that was interference of the worst kind,” says Thomas.

The defense attorneys are asking Rosen to require Ashcroft’s appearance at a public hearing and show why he should not be held in contempt. Rosen last week ordered Ashcroft to explain in writing why he should not be hauled into court. Rosen will decide whether to hold the hearing.

We called the Justice Department seeking comment, but never heard back. So now Ashcroft’s not talking. How convenient.

If Ashcroft is found in contempt of court, he could be required to pay a $1,000 fine or face up to six months in jail, according to Thomas.

“The judge has a pretty broad latitude here,” he says. “All I am hoping for is that we have a public hearing.”

It is supposed to be a bedrock of American jurisprudence that no man is above the law.

We’ll see if that’s true.

Send comments to [email protected]
Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles
Join the Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.