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  •   Pr. George's Sheriff Plans to Retire in Jan.

    Sheriff James Aluisi in his Upper Marlboro office.
    Sheriff James Aluisi in his Upper Marlboro office (Rich Lipski / TWP)
    By Philip P. Pan
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, July 7, 1998; Page D01

    James V. Aluisi, who as sheriff has been a fixture in Prince George's County for two decades, said yesterday that he will retire rather than seek a sixth term. He is stepping down even as the agency he helped build suffers a severe staffing crisis caused by his feud with County Executive Wayne K. Curry.

    Aluisi, 52, said in an interview that a serious back injury he suffered last year has left him too weak to undertake another election campaign, much less devote the time and energy needed to repair the troubled department and carry on the fight against Curry over how the department should be funded and managed.

    For more than two years, Aluisi and Curry have been locked in a legal battle over those issues, and the agency has been deteriorating as a result, with serious consequences for the county's justice system. Only two deputies, for example, are now assigned to the county's growing backlog of 38,200 criminal arrest warrants.

    But Aluisi denied that Curry has run him out of office, and he vowed to continue to fight Curry in court until he leaves office in January.

    "I was very much tempted to keep the fight going, but I just can't do it. . . . You can't run an operation like this from the hospital," Aluisi said. "With the situation Wayne Curry has put us in, it's going to take full-time leadership to get us out."

    Curry accuses Aluisi of gross waste and mismanagement, and he is asking a judge to put the agency in receivership. Aluisi says Curry has slashed his budget so much – cutting funding by 40 percent and eliminating 100 positions over four years – that the department can barely function, and he is suing to get the money back.

    The matter is before Circuit Court Judge Steven G. Chappelle, but Aluisi's departure could signal a political resolution of the crisis. In the past, Curry has said he would be willing to settle the case if a new sheriff took office and subscribed to the county's budget priorities.

    Aluisi said he hopes Chappelle will rule in his favor before he leaves office.

    "We're going to win this case," he said. "If I was going to run from a fight, I wouldn't have stood up to [Curry's] tyrannical power play in the first place."

    In announcing his retirement, Aluisi lashed out at Curry in his strongest and most personal attack yet. He said Curry – whom he endorsed in 1994 – was punishing the sheriff's office over a run-in with its employees at the courthouse during the mid-'80s, when the executive was just a "young, arrogant lawyer."

    Aluisi also accused Curry of lying to the public about the county's fiscal situation. "Wayne Curry could gargle with holy water, and I wouldn't believe a word the man says," the sheriff said. "The power has just gone to his head. It's just sad to see the state of county leadership deteriorate to this point."

    When he took office, Aluisi said, his agency employed 90 people. As the county grew, that figured climbed to a high of 310 in 1994. Curry's most recent budget includes funding for 177 positions.

    Curry did not return phone calls to his office yesterday. In the past, he has accused Aluisi of allowing some deputies to do virtually nothing while deliberately pulling others away from critical tasks in a cynical ploy to demonstrate he needs more staff.

    The feud between Aluisi and Curry, two headstrong Democrats who were once allies on the campaign trail, has left the sheriff's office a shambles. Half of all domestic violence restraining orders are going unserved. Landlords complain it takes months to carry out an eviction. Police officers are transporting prisoners to jail themselves instead of waiting for deputies, keeping them away from patrol duties for long stretches.

    "It's just a travesty," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), who blames Curry for cutting the sheriff's budget too far. "The public is suffering, law enforcement is suffering, public safety is suffering."

    "Jimmy's decision not to run again is a loss for the county and for the state," Miller added. "Up until Jimmy Aluisi became sheriff, there was always some minor scandal associated with the office. There was a lot of political patronage. But Jimmy professionalized the office. He stayed the course, and he made it a model for the whole state."

    The job of rebuilding will fall to one of five candidates – four Democrats and one Republican – who are campaigning for the $95,000-a-year job. Yesterday, Aluisi endorsed the candidacy of his chief assistant deputy, Alonzo D. Black, a former county prosecutor and one of the first African American police officers hired by the county.

    The son and nephew of prominent county politicians, Aluisi joined the sheriff's office as a deputy at age 21 while still enrolled at Prince George's Community College. He became the youngest sheriff in Maryland in 1978, when he was elected at age 31.

    In the years since, he has earned a reputation as one of the county's friendliest and most colorful politicians, a gun-loving bachelor who describes himself as "cuddly" and mounts the stuffed heads of sheep and deer on the walls of his office.

    In his first term, Aluisi gained national attention for starting a program to hire and train disabled veterans for various civilian jobs in the agency using federal funds. In his second term, he earned plaudits again when he created one of the nation's first child support enforcement squads after receiving a letter from a mother pleading for his help.

    More recently, in 1992, Aluisi established a domestic violence unit whose deputies are assigned to serve and carry out restraining orders. The squad, the first of its kind in Maryland, was hailed as a model for other counties by state officials.

    Now, Aluisi said, that squad and others he created are failing the county. He said it saddens him to leave the agency in such a state. "It was a tough decision. I've been debating and debating," he said. "I have a job [where] I've loved going to work for 32 years."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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