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Steven I. Platt: Maryland can lead on corrections reforms

By all accounts, this has not been a good stretch of the year for the Obama administration. In fact, what columnist Ruth Marcus called an “unfortunate confluence of unfortunate events,” the Benghazi, Internal Revenue Service and Associated Press probe “scandals” will ultimately not make the first paragraph — not even the first page — of the account of the Obama administration in the history books. This despite the attempt by partisans to make these bureaucratic screw-ups into more than what they are for political and, in some cases, personal reasons.

Nevertheless, it is never a good sign when an administration’s strongest defense to the charge of corruption is: “We are not corrupt. We are only grossly incompetent.”

The only one of these incidents that actually gives out even a whiff of scandal is Benghazi, and there, as Marcus points out, “the real scandal is what the State Department’s own report concluded some time ago: ‘That systematic failures of leadership resulted in “grossly inadequate” security.’” That is the “scandal” — not the bureaucratic infighting and multiple revisions of “talking points,” for whatever reason, including bureaucratic or even partisan politics.

The Associated Press leak probe has also not been explained well by the Justice Department. Department of Justice personnel incomprehensibly subpoenaed the records of more than 20 telephone lines used by about 100 journalists. This writer doesn’t have a clue as to why this was necessary — even though I actually pay attention to and read everything I can about these events.

What we have here, then, is at best, in the words of “Cool Hand Luke,” “a failure to communicate” and, at worst, an over-the-top action that reflects poorly on the judgment of whoever approved it in the name of stopping national security leaks.

Nor is it likely that this precipitous and ill-advised action will ultimately chill the reporting of the targeted or any other journalists. In fact, because of our nation’s history and traditions of valuing freedom of the press and speech, it is probable that these actions will cause reporters to be more vigilant in reporting and guarding their freedoms than they were before the infringements occurred.

To make matters worse, the Obama White House, which right-wing partisans have heretofore accused of being behind everything that can possibly go wrong in the world — including bad weather and conspiring to interfere with our constitutional rights by confiscating our guns and requiring the use of birth-control devices — is now accused of not intervening to protect reporters’ civil liberties and privacy from its own Justice Department.

Finally, the Internal Revenue Service debacle is what the Treasury Department inspector general says it is — which is bad enough. The inspector general’s report says straightforwardly that an “ignorant, recalcitrant and mismanaged bureaucracy” that “lacked knowledge about what political activities are permitted under the tax law did not consider the public perception of using politically sensitive criteria.”

Combine this with what the IG cited as “insufficient oversight” with only the “lowest-level managers having approved references to the Tea Party in the listing criteria of the [Be On the Lookout] before it was implemented.”

Even the most bitter partisans cannot have it both ways.

“Lowest-level managers” do not equal clever and diabolical White House operatives, even if you want them to. Furthermore, the partisan critics who profess greater loyalty to the Constitution than you or me should remember at times like these that our Founding Fathers did not establish a system of checks and balances by political parties.

It was by separate branches of government, regardless of which party has the majority. In fact, the Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson, warned of the perils of excessive partisanship by political parties, which is exactly what we are witnessing now on a daily basis.

The answer, then, to House Speaker John Boehner’s rhetorical query: “Who’s going to jail over this scandal?” is probably no one — unless we criminalize ignorance and/or stupidity. If we do that, we’ll need to build a lot more prisons and jails.

Speaking of prisons and jails, mismanagement and yes, corruption, contrast with the Obama administration’s travails how Gov. Martin O’Malley confronted the corruption that allowed a gang, the Black Guerilla Family, to literally take over the state-run Baltimore city jail.

The state took the initiative last year by inviting the FBI to help it crack down on the corruption that allowed and even encouraged the gang takeover. This is significant and praiseworthy on a couple of levels.

First the governor and his public safety chief, Gary Maynard, recognized and acknowledged the limitations both numerically and technically of our state’s law enforcement and corrections personnel to investigate and prosecute the governmental personnel who had been corrupted as well as those who corrupted them. That required a degree of humility on the part of the governor and his public safety director — a character trait heretofore not widely acknowledged by observers of either. It also meant they chose solving the problem rather than worrying about who would get the credit.

As it turned out, this decision also required the governor and his public safety director to delay by about six weeks disclosing what they knew and taking corrective action — until the initial federal indictments had been issued and served. They knew they would be criticized, but give them credit for apparently not even contemplating interfering with the investigation they had requested. The results, in the form of indictments and arrests, as well as the prosecutions that will follow, speak for themselves.

Those steps are, however, not enough. O’Malley, whether you agree with everything he has done or not, has accomplished most of what he wanted to get done in his two terms as governor — both legislatively and at the polls.

After the sine die of the 2013 session of the General Assembly, there was even speculation in the media that there wasn’t anything left for him to do for the rest of his term except prepare to run for another elective office, possibly president of the United States.

There is, however, something else that he can do that is a natural extension of his political brand as a law-and-order mayor and governor. He can lead a final effort to establish a more efficient criminal justice system in this state and reinforce his legacy in Maryland, as well as establish a model to point to and a record to run on nationally.

The “crisis in corrections” is not unrelated to the management of the whole criminal justice system — and that fundamental fact ought to be recognized and acknowledged by the formation of a task force or commission composed of representatives of all three branches of government, as well as both chambers of the legislative branch of government with both major political parties.

Steven I. Platt, a retired associate judge on the Prince George’s County Circuit Court, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. He can be reached at info@apursuitofjustice.com