By MATT APUZZO
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's hopes of avoiding prison in the CIA leak case began to dim Tuesday as a federal judge ruled he could face a longer sentence because the investigation he obstructed was so serious.
Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, is the highest-ranking official convicted of a crime since the Iran Contra affair.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald wants to put Libby in prison for up to three years because the investigation he was convicted of obstructing - the leak of a CIA operative's identity - was so important. Libby's attorneys are seeking no jail time and argue that it's unfair to increase the sentence simply because the investigation was serious.
"No one was ever charged. Nobody ever pleaded guilty," attorney William Jeffress said. "The government did not establish the existence of an offense."
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton didn't accept that. By that reasoning, Walton said, witnesses benefit if they aggressively obstruct investigations so prosecutors can't make their case.
"I just can't buy in on that being good social policy," said Walton, who has a reputation as a tough sentencing judge. "It's one thing if you obstruct a petty larceny. It's another thing if you obstruct a murder investigation."
Walton's preliminary ruling doesn't necessarily foretell Libby's sentence. But it does make it harder for Libby's attorneys to argue for no jail time because it raises the seriousness of his offense.
In support of Libby's bid for probation, dozens of prominent people wrote letters to Walton. Among the letter writers were: former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.
"My hope and prayer is that his outstanding record, his many contributions to our country and his value as a citizen, will be considered carefully," Rumsfeld wrote.
Libby was to have the opportunity to speak publicly about the charges later in the day. He has not discussed the case since his 2005 indictment. Throughout his monthlong trial, and following his conviction in March, he always let his lawyers do the talking.
Defense attorneys have not said whether Libby actually will speak. It's a delicate decision, one made more difficult because Libby has maintained his innocence and is appealing his conviction.
"The only thing any sentencing judge wants to hear is remorse, and if they don't think it comes from the heart or they think they're only sorry for getting caught, for losing their job, or for going to jail, it doesn't count," said Hugh Keefe, a Connecticut defense attorney who teaches trial advocacy at Yale University.
Libby was convicted of lying to investigators about what he told reporters regarding CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose identity was leaked to reporters in 2003 after her husband began criticizing the Bush administration's war policies.
He can't offer too much of an apology, however, without jeopardizing his appeal. A general apology, one in which Libby expresses regret for the drawn-out litigation and the pain he's caused his family, leaves him exposed to another Fitzgerald attack for not showing genuine remorse.
Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan apologized - generally speaking - to voters last year at his corruption sentencing.
"When they elected me as the governor of this state, they expected better, and I let 'em down and for that I apologize," Ryan said before a judge sentenced him to 6½ years in prison.
Former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell said nothing at his sentencing for tax evasion last year and was ordered to spend 2½ years in prison. Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling declared "I am innocent of these charges," before being sentenced to 24 years in prison for corporate fraud.
Walton has a reputation as a tough judge. If he sends Libby to prison, he must decide whether to put that sentence on hold while the appeal plays out.
If Walton grants such a delay, it would give Bush more time to consider a pardon for Libby.
The president has said he's going to stay out of it until the legal case is over, a decision that's harder if his former aide is headed to prison.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)