Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Keith Corbett, Federal Prosecutor Who Helped Break the Detroit Mafia, to Retire

The federal prosecutor who helped break the Detroit Mafia is calling it quits.

Keith Corbett, 59, the cigar-chomping assistant U.S. Attorney who ran the office's Organized Crime Strike Force, said he plans to retire on Jan. 3 because of shifting priorities in the Justice Department and because, well, he's worn out.

"I don't want to be one of those old guys sitting around talking about the good old days and telling people how we used to do it," Corbett told the Free Press. He said he hasn't decided what he'll do next.

Coworkers -- as well as criminal lawyers who've matched wits with Corbett -- said they'll be sorry to see him go.

"He's as good on his feet as any lawyer who ever walked into a courtroom," said Detroit criminal lawyer Robert Morgan, a former federal prosecutor.

Morgan and others say Corbett can try cases with little preparation, yet recall key evidence with lethal precision.

Corbett is a cocky, street-smart Irish kid from Brooklyn, the son of a New York City cop.

After graduating in 1967 from a seminary with plans to become a priest, Corbett enrolled at Canisius College in Buffalo, where his plans changed. After getting a political science degree in 1971, he enrolled at Notre Dame University and got his law degree in 1974.

Corbett, who by then had married, landed a job at the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office.

In 1977, he joined a Pontiac law firm to boost his income, but didn't like civil law. The next year, he joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit and eventually was assigned to the strike force.

In 1980, he won racketeering convictions against Detroit Mafia captains Peter Vitale and Rafaelle Quassarano for extorting money from a western Michigan cheese company. The FBI has long suspected that the body of former Teamsters' boss Jimmy Hoffa was incinerated at their garbage disposal facility in Hamtramck.

In the mid-1980s, Corbett helped convict mayoral associate Darralyn Bowers and then-Detroit Water and Sewer Director Charles Beckham in the Vista Disposal bribery scandal.

Corbett went back to private practice in 1989, but quickly returned to his prosecutor job and was put in charge of the strike force a year later.

His biggest victory came in the late 1990s when he helped convict the top leaders of the Detroit Mafia of racketeering and other charges spanning three decades. The case demolished the Detroit mob. But he got in trouble in 2003 by helping a subordinate, then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino, prosecute the first terrorism trial to result from the federal 9/11 probe.

Though two North African immigrants were convicted of aiding terrorism, the case imploded when the U.S. Attorney's Office learned that the prosecutors had withheld key evidence from the defendants.

Convertino resigned. He was indicted on a charge of obstruction of justice, but was later acquitted. He sued his former bosses.

Corbett told investigators he joined the case at the last minute and didn't know evidence was being withheld. Though he wasn't charged, Corbett did suffer the indignity of having his strike force merged with another unit and was demoted.

Defense lawyers said they don't hold Corbett responsible for hiding evidence, but added that he should have done a better job of supervising Convertino.

Earlier this year, Corbett's bosses considered putting him on the trial team that pursued prominent Southfield lawyer Geoffrey Fieger on campaign-finance charges, knowing that Corbett wouldn't be intimidated by the outspoken Fieger or his legendary criminal lawyer, Gerry Spence. Corbett ultimately was not assigned to the case, which Fieger won.

"I don't know if it would have had any impact, but it would have been a lot of fun," Corbett said mischievously.

Thanks to David Ashenfelter

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