Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Former State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh speaks to reporters during the Sheila Dixon trial in January 2010. (File photo)

Elimination of state prosecutor ‘a no win’ for state’s attorneys

A campaign proposal to eliminate the Office of the State Prosecutor is being met with disapproval by some state’s attorneys who would be charged with filling the role.

“It’s a real no-win situation,” said Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess.

Leitess and Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, a Democrat and Republican respectively, said Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler’s proposal would place intense amounts of political pressure on local prosecutors.

“Do I really want to be in that position?” Cassilly said. “No.”

For Leitess and Cassilly, the biggest concern comes from what happens when a local state’s attorney, who is also an elected official, is faced with investigating and possibly charging another elected official or high-profile donor with public corruption or election law violations.

Supporters and opponents will inevitably be waiting to pounce on the state’s attorney in the case of a charge or the decision not to charge.

“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said Leitess.

Cassilly compared it to taking a large mouthful of steaming hot coffee.

“Whatever you do next is wrong,” he said. “Do I really want to do that? If I go after someone I have a political motivation and if I decide not to go after someone, I have a political motivation.”

Just getting prosecutors to comment on the plan proved challenging. Several declined to comment out of concern they would be getting involved in election-year politics or taking a side in a heated campaign.

Gansler last week proposed the elimination of the state prosecutor as part of an overall $1.5 billion fiscal plan he said he would implement if elected governor.

Gansler, in a statement, called the office “a holdover from the Watergate era that was meant to operate like the federal Office of the Special Prosecutor, which was a temporary office. The office has no legal jurisdiction that is not already covered by a State’s Attorney’s office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Attorney General.”

The office was created in 1976 — a post-Watergate era that not only witnessed the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon but locally saw high-profile federal prosecutions of Gov. Marvin Mandel, Vice President and former-Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew and Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson and a local corruption trial of Baltimore County State’s Attorney Samuel A. Green Jr.

“I don’t think anyone wants to go back to how it was back then,” Cassilly said.

Initially, the office didn’t even have subpoena power — authority granted to it in 2008. In recent years, the office has secured pleas or convictions in several high-profile cases, including Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, Baltimore Mayor Sheila A. Dixon and Baltimore County developer Steve W. Whalen Jr.

The prosecution of Leopold would have created problems for Leitess’ office in terms of devoting attorneys and investigators. The Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney’s Office, the fifth-largest in the state, has about 48 lawyers including Leitess, and a budget of under $10 million. Similar prosecutions in smaller jurisdictions would be nearly impossible if state’s attorneys were made responsible, Leitess said.

“I really see this as being a huge problem for small jurisdictions that really don’t have the resources to investigate or prosecute local officials,” Leitess said.

Elimination of the office and its relatively small staff of about 15 would save nearly $1.4 million annually. Gansler said he would reassign the staff “to existing, better-resourced law enforcement agencies, where their skills and experience can be more effectively put to use. If a need arises for a special prosecutor, for instance to avoid conflict of interest, one can be temporarily appointed, as Congress does now.”

Ironically, Gansler’s proposal comes at the same time he and other elected officials — mostly Republicans — have called on the legislature to hire outside counsel with subpoena powers to investigate the creation of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange. Some legislators have complained that the reluctance of legislative leaders to begin such an investigation is driven by the fact that many of them have already endorsed Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the Democratic gubernatorial front-runner, who was in charge of rolling out Maryland’s response to the federal Affordable Care Act.

In the end, the veteran prosecutors said the independence of the state office protects the public against the appearance of impropriety or partisan favoritism.

“The public deserves to have someone who is independent who is going to act,” Leitess said. “The thing that is good with the state prosecutor is it’s completely outside the local politics. They’re above the political fray.”