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Editorial: Leave state prosecutor’s office alone

The proposal to shut down the Office of the State Prosecutor and reassign its staff to existing law enforcement agencies came from a good impulse. But it’s a very bad idea.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a candidate for governor, suggested the plan as part of a larger batch of cost-cutting ideas. It’s certainly a fruitful exercise to take a sharp pencil to government operations and see what can be pared down or even eliminated. And we appreciate Gansler’s willingness to leave no stone unturned in his quest for a leaner, more efficient government.

Yet it’s impossible to see how $1.4 million — the presumed savings from axing the office — would outweigh the significant damage that would be incurred.

Since its creation in 1976 in the wake of the Watergate-era political and campaign scandals, the Office of the State Prosecutor has served Maryland well. It has removed from the political arena those cases that have such a taint of intrigue about them that they’re a challenge for the normal prosecutorial system to address.

The state prosecutor is nominated by a selection commission and appointed by the governor for a term of six years and is supported by a small professional staff.

On his or her initiative or in response to a request by the governor, attorney general or General Assembly, the state prosecutor may investigate a well-defined range of cases: bribery allegations involving public officials or employees; alleged election or ethics law violations; potential misconduct-in-office cases; or extortion, obstruction of justice or perjury allegations that spring from these matters.

The office is also empowered to probe those cases that might cross jurisdictions and become political footballs.

The state prosecutor’s office has been productive. For most Marylanders, it’s known largely for handling high-profile cases involving major public figures, such as the successful prosecution of former Baltimore Mayor Sheila A. Dixon and former Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold. But it’s handled many other matters, too. In its most recent report, the Office of the State Prosecutor said that it closed 176 cases in the 2013 fiscal year, of which 78 were corruption cases, 81 involved election law violations and 17 were other matters.

It’s also hard to see how having a special prosecutor temporarily appointed to address a specific case — the model now followed by Congress for federal matters — would be an improvement over the system we now have in Maryland. The tendency of partisan political players in Washington to demand special prosecutors for matters both grave and trivial is not a spectacle that needs to be repeated in Annapolis. Under the direction of several prosecutors, the Maryland office has conducted itself judiciously and, in our view, enjoys the respect and confidence of the general public.

A previous version of this editorial mistakenly reported that the Office of the State Prosecutor does not have the power to offer immunity to witnesses in non-bribery cases. That power was  given to the office  this year by a measure passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor.