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Top court upholds Holton’s bribery dismissal

Helen L. Holton

Saying “at last justice has prevailed,” Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton praised Maryland’s top court late Wednesday for declining to reinstate criminal charges that she had committed bribery, and later perjury, in voting for tax breaks for developers who had made an indirect payment to her.

The Court of Appeals said Holton enjoyed legislative immunity from prosecution related to her vote. The immunity enables lawmakers to cast votes without fear of criminal sanction or litigation, the court said.

The 5-2 decision brings to a close the Maryland State Prosecutor’s public-corruption case against Holton, said her attorney, Joshua R. Treem, of Schulman, Treem & Gilden PA in Baltimore.

In the prosecution’s only victory, Holton pleaded no contest in October to a misdemeanor campaign finance violation for which she paid a $2,500 fine and forfeited her post as chair of the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee. She was also placed on unsupervised probation for one year.

“We have reached the end of the road,” Holton said of the prosecution. “It’s been a long, drawn-out ordeal. They’ve taken it to the highest court in the land and it’s over.”

Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said the legislative immunity issue “was one of first impression in the state and now the court has decided it. Although disappointed, we certainly respect the court’s decision.”

The bribery and perjury charges stemmed from a $12,500 political poll Holton commissioned in the summer of 2007, when she chaired what was then the Taxation and Finance Committee.

The poll was paid for by developers whose Harbor East building projects were candidates for city tax breaks.

The developers, Ronald H. Lipscomb and John Paterakis Sr., pleaded guilty in 2009 to conspiracy to violate campaign finance law.

Lower courts had thrown out the charges against Holton, finding that her votes were covered under a state law that protects lawmakers from prosecution “for words spoken at a meeting of the council or … at a meeting of a committee or subcommittee thereof.”

The high court agreed.

Constitutional-law professor Stephen I. Vladeck said the decision is in line with other federal and state court decisions.

Legislative immunity enables legislators to “vote their conscience,” free of potential coercion by prosecutors, added Vladeck, who teaches at American University’s Washington College of Law.

“There is a remedy for legislative misconduct: The remedy is to boot the transgressor out of office,” Vladeck said. “It’s up to the voter and not the prosecutor to decide whether the legislator has acted inappropriately.”

Holton said she is “absolutely” running for re-election this year.

The Court of Appeals, in its decision, took what it called the extraordinary step of dismissing an indictment. Such a step was required under the state law, which bars charges from even being brought against council members for their legislative acts, the court said.

The court noted the grand jury’s indictment referred frequently to Holton’s votes in favor of legislation backing the Harbor East project.

“The case at bar presents a rare exception to the general rule that suppression of inadmissible evidence, rather than dismissal of the indictment, is the appropriate relief,” Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. wrote for the majority.

The indictment “is permeated with assertions that [Holton] engaged in conduct for which she does have immunity” under the law, Courts and Judicial Proceedings Section 5-501, Murphy wrote. “The remedy for the violation is dismissal of the indictment.”

In dissent, Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. said the indictment should stand, but that Holton could raise legislative immunity to block evidence of her votes at trial.

Judge Sally D. Adkins joined Harrell’s dissent.

Payment for a poll

Visiting Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who presided over Holton’s case as well as the corruption trial of former Mayor Sheila A. Dixon, dismissed the bribery and perjury charges against Holton in May 2009. He concluded that prosecutors had offered no evidence of a corrupt arrangement beyond her vote, which was protected by legislative immunity.

Then-State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh appealed, arguing legislative immunity applies to state but not city lawmakers.

The Court of Special Appeals rejected that argument last July, and the state sought review by the top court.

While those proceedings were pending, Holton agreed to plead no-contest to the misdemeanor charge of failing to pass a $12,500 in-kind contribution through her campaign finance committee.

According to a statement of facts attached to Holton’s plea, pollster Ronald Lester pitched the poll idea to Holton campaign operative Travis Tazalaar in early 2007. Holton said she would “obtain the money to do the poll.” She told Lester she had Paterakis, Lipscomb and perhaps a third person in mind.

Lipscomb, Dixon’s former boyfriend and an investor in Paterakis’ Harbor East waterfront development, agreed to fund the project, and Holton directed Lester to bill Lipscomb.

Doracon Contracting Inc., which Lipscomb owned, paid the full bill on July 30, 2007. Paterakis’ J&B Associates reimbursed Doracon on Aug. 10, 2007, according to the statement.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Maryland v. Holton, CA No. 91, Sept. Term 2010. Reported. Opinion by Murphy, J. Concurrence and Dissent by Harrell, J. Filed July 13, 2011.

Issue:

Did the lower court err in dismissing a bribery indictment against council member in a service-for-vote case?

Holding:

Yes; the council member’s legislative immunity from prosecution includes her votes.

Counsel:

Emmet C. Davitt and Thomas M. “Mike” McDonough for petitioner; Joshua R. Treem for respondent.

RecordFax # 11-0713-21.