Ethics complaint questions Vallario’s dual roles as legislator and lawyer

Mark Gail/The Washington Post - Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. is seen at a hearing in Annapolis in this file photo.

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Kenniss Henry told the lawmaker all the horrible details about her daughter’s death: How Natasha Pettigrew headed out before sunrise on a fall morning for a bike ride, part of her triathlon training. How the SUV driver who hit her told police she kept on going because she thought she had hit a deer.

How at the hospital that day in September 2010 her daughter’s eyes were “stitched and stapled.” That the 30-year-old law student’s teeth were broken, her ribs shattered, her lung collapsed. That one of her hands was literally “a bag of bones.” And that surgeons were preparing to drill into her skull to see if they could detect any brain activity.

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After her daughter died, prosecutors told Henry that they would try to build a criminal case against the driver, but because of Maryland’s lax vehicular manslaughter laws, the charges would probably not be severe.

That’s why Henry was in Annapolis, telling her story to Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Vallario (D-Prince George’s), who is also a criminal defense attorney, had for years stood in the way of bills aimed at making it easier for prosecutors to get jail time for negligent drivers, arguing they criminalized what were often accidents. At a time “of unspeakable grief,” Henry was trying to change his mind — not for her daughter’s case, but for those like it in the future.

Weeks later, Henry almost fainted, she said, when prosecutors told her who was representing the driver who killed her daughter: Vallario’s son, who operates out of his father’s law office in Suitland.

The episode is now the subject of an ethics complaint, with Henry arguing that Vallario — whose roles as both legislator and defense lawyer have long drawn scrutiny in Annapolis — had an egregious conflict of interest.

Henry said she never would have shared as much information about her daughter’s death with the powerful lawmaker had she known his son would be attempting to win an acquittal for Christy Littleford, the driver of the SUV.

“He had the power to take any statements I made back to his firm, and his son could have [used] my words against me,” Henry says in the complaint pending before the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics. “Delegate Vallario’s behavior is not only dubious, it is sleazy and unethical.”

In an interview, Vallario— who wound up voting for vehicular manslaughter legislation the same year he met with Henry — said he had done nothing wrong in his dealings with her. Although he and his son work out of the same sixth-floor suite of offices in Suitland, Vallario said they maintain separate law practices and he was not involved in Littleford’s defense.

“I have nothing at all to do with his business,” Vallario said of his 50-year-old son. “We don’t discuss cases, and we don’t share cases.”

Asked if he had relayed anything shared with him by Henry to his son, Vallario said: “I’m sure that never happened.”

He said had no recollection of even meeting Littleford. “I could not tell you if the defendant was white or African-American or weighed 100 pounds or 400 pounds,” Vallario said, adding that if they ever had bumped into one another in his law office, “she sure didn’t talk to me other than saying, ‘Hi.’ ”

The deliberations of the ethics committee are typically confidential, and it’s possible there could be no action taken on the complaint before lawmakers return to Annapolis in January. Maryland’s conflict-of-interest laws are narrowly drawn, and generally only prohibit legislators from directly benefiting personally from their actions.

But the case provides a window into the dual roles played by Vallario — public legislator and private lawyer — that have confounded his critics during the two decades he’s presided over the Judiciary Committee.

On repeated occasions, as Vallario has blocked bills that would strengthen laws against drunken driving, domestic violence and gun crimes, those on the other side have questioned whether his work as a defense lawyer clouds his judgment.

The separation of the two Vallario law practices is not altogether evident from outside appearances.

The two men share an office phone number. Outside regular business hours, callers are invited to leave messages for “the father” and “the son,” among other lawyers. (Vallario’s son also maintains a separate Web page that advertises a Google Voice number for him alone.) Vallario said he charges his son no rent to operate out of the building in Suitland, which he owns.

In news reports, there are have been many references over the years to Vallario’s law firm as “Vallario & Collins.” Vallario, 76, said that has never been a formal entity, but that the lawyers who practice around him — including his son — use letterhead with the name. There is also an escrow account maintained in the name of Vallario & Collins, Vallario said.

The court file on Littleford’s case includes a letter written to the judge by Vallario’s son on Vallario & Collins letterhead. The letterhead lists five lawyers, including both Vallarios.

When Littleford’s case went to trial in May 2012, a Prince George’s jury convicted her of four counts, including failure to stop at the scene of an accident and hit-and-run personal injury. (Manslaughter was never charged.) Littleford was sentenced to a year in prison.

The case attracted a fair amount of media attention, in part because Pettigrew had been running for the U.S. Senate in 2010 as the Green Party nominee. Henry took over as the candidate after her daughter was killed.

It is unclear whether Vallario’s son had been hired by Littleford before the end of the legislative session in which the elder Vallario’s committee was considering the vehicular manslaughter legislation. Both Littleford and the younger Vallario declined to be interviewed for this article.

After discovering a mangled bike under her Escalade, Littleford contacted police the day she hit Pettigrew. But she wasn’t indicted until September 2011, about five months after the legislative session had ended.

Vallario said he was not certain when his son was hired by Littleford.

“I’m just guessing he got hired when she was charged,” Vallario said. “Maybe they were involved in discussions before that. I wouldn’t think so. You need to ask him.”

The younger Vallario did not return multiple phone calls, and Littleford would not say during a brief phone interview when she hired a lawyer.

“I can’t get into that,” she said. “No, I cannot.”

Henry said she was told by Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks in May 2011 that “the Vallario firm” had Littleford’s case — which, if true, meant that consultations about the case could have been ongoing during the legislative session when Henry was lobbying Vallario about the vehicular manslaughter legislation.

John Erzen, a spokesman for Alsobrooks, said neither Alsobrooks nor the prosecutor in her office who handled Littleford’s case could recall sharing that with Henry.

“Something could have been said in passing, but they have no recollection of a conversation,” Erzen said.

Henry said she would still be dismayed even if Littleford did not retain Vallario’s son until after the legislative session. By that time, the elder Vallario “must have been competent enough to connect the dots” and realize it created a conflict of interest because she had told him details about the case, Henry said.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the episode “raises a lot of red flags” regardless of when Littleford hired Vallario’s son.

By the time Henry joined the battle over the vehicular manslaughter legislation, similar bills had died for six years running in the General Assembly. Vallario, as chairman, would not bring the legislation to a vote in his committee.

The legislation attempted to establish a middle course for prosecutors in vehicular manslaughter cases. Under the existing laws, they had two options: pursue a lesser charge that most often resulted in only a modest fine, or try to establish a degree of negligence that was difficult to prove but could result in a 10-year prison sentence.

“Maryland’s old law had an impossibly high standard,” said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), the bill’s sponsor. “It was met in only egregious cases.”

His bill created a new offense with a lower standard that carried up to three years in prison. Among the supporters was Alsobrooks.

During Henry’s meetings with Vallario in early 2011, she said Vallario remained opposed to the legislation, providing her with reading material about “mens rea” — the legal term for a guilty state of mind. Vallario and others opposed to the bill voiced concerns about sending people to prison for what in essence were accidents.

Adiva Sotzsky, who had been lobbying for the legislation for several years, said Vallario was the primary obstacle to its passage.

“He wields a tremendous amount of influence,” said Sotzsky, whose husband died in 2004 after being hit on his motorcycle by a truck driver. “If he wants a bill to stay in the drawer, it does.”

As it turned out, 2011 was different than previous years. The bill passed.

What changed the dynamic, Simmons and several advocates for the bill said, was the personal involvement of House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).

In an interview, Busch said he was moved to step in after meeting with several advocates for the bill who had lost family members to reckless drivers. Those included Sotzsky and Henry.

Though Vallario was “resistant” at first, Busch said, he was able to work with him and other leading members of the Judiciary Committee to build support for the legislation.

“There was a lack of fairness in the judicial system, and we corrected it,” Busch said. “It was a successful process, and I felt quite good about it, quite candidly.”

Busch declined to comment on the ethics complaint against Vallario, citing confidentiality rules.

After being tweaked by the Senate, the final version of the legislation passed the House 140 to 1.

Vallario said he still had reservations about the legislation, but voted for it in keeping with his general practice of supporting bills approved by his committee.

“I voted for the bill,” he said. “I wasn’t jumping up and down about it.”

On the day the bill was signed into law in May 2011, Henry said Vallario pulled her aside and said she should stop by and see him if she ever needed anything. She said she’ll never forget his parting words: “Don’t be a stranger.”

 
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