Scandals are different in small towns. They are so much messier, so much more human than in the big cities. They wrench at ties of blood and friendship, sometimes forcing neighbors to choose between loyalty and truth. Small-town scandals are slowly forgotten. Wrongdoers, unless they move away, cannot slip into anonymity. They are seen on the street and the townsfolk remember.
The scandal that still echoes in Chestertown began eight summers ago when an auditor walked into the office of State's Attorney Floyd L. Parks and spread out information showing that someone was embezzling money from the county tax office. The information, which soon resulted in an indictment for embezzlement and forgery against Kent County Treasurer Betty Anne Crowding, made Parks sick at heart.
"It was an unhappy thing," remembers Parks. In Chestertown, an insular Eastern Shore community where 30- year residents hesitate to call themselves locals, Parks was an outsider. Then 37 years old, he had lived in Chestertown only five years and had been the local prosecutor for less than a year. He ran for office on the same Democratic ticket with the treasurer who, according to the information that had been spread out on his desk, was a crook.
The political connections of the alleged embezzler were especially "unhappy" for Parks. Betty Anne Crowding, then 44, a thin, blond woman with greenish-gray eyes, was always quiet. Still water runs deep, townspeople said of her. But she could afford to be quiet and enigmatic. She was a native of Kent County and she was kin to two of the county's most powerful Democratic families--the Hadaways and the Robinsons.
Crowding's grandfather, J. Thomas Hadaway, had been an influential and popular county sheriff who was first elected in 1915. Her cousin, a Robinson, was a state game warden for 25 years, a key position on the Eastern Shore where "gunning" is a major source of food and revenue. Her uncle, Robert E. Lee (who married a Hadaway) was county treasurer for 28 years. Crowding went to work for him in the treasurer's office in 1952. After Uncle Robert died, she was elected county treasurer in 1970.
Although he was a newcomer to county politics, Parks figured that prosecuting Crowding would be political suicide. As things turned out, he figured right.
"If you took that bunch of evidence I had, it was clear that the money was gone. An FBI man said it was Crowding's handwriting on the treasurer's books. It was a difficult thing, but I was sworn to uphold the laws. I took it to the grand jury and they voted an indictment. If I hadn't prosecuted her, it would have been malfeasance in office," says Parks.
In the fall of that year, the Kent County commissioners announced discrepancies in county tax records totaling more than $10,000. At about that time, Crowding--who has always maintained her innocence--became ill and checked into a hospital.
At her trial the next spring, she rolled into the county courthouse in Chestertown in a wheelchair. She was pale and looked sickly. She was in the wheelchair because she had a sprained ankle, and her lawyer told the court she had other medical problems as well.
"She is dying of cancer . . . she has had 65 percent of her stomach removed," lawyer James J. White II said at the trial. White, a successful Chestertown criminal lawyer known for courtroom theatrics and bizarre neckties, implored the judge and jury: "Please do not subject her to the possibility of a prison term."
State's Attorney Parks, having long abandoned his reluctance to prosecute, presented evidence showing that the treasurer participated in a "rollover" scheme in which tax payments were stolen from the county one year and covered the next with money paid by other taxpayers. The case was strong and well- documented by evidence and expert testimony, said Earl Pinder, the clerk of the court.
The big problem was the jury. Almost no one wanted to be on it. The Hadaways and the Robinsons had a lot of friends among the people of Chestertown and Kent County. And the Hadaways and the Robinsons had a reputation "for taking things personally," says H. Hurtt Deringer, editor of the Kent County News. Besides, there aren't all that many people to chose from in Kent County. With 16,695 residents, it has the smallest population of any Maryland county.
Circuit Court Judge George B. Rasin disqualified himself from hearing the case. An out-of-town judge was brought in. Sensing the reluctance of jurors to vent their opinions of Crowding publicly, the judge took the unusual step of interviewing prospective jurors privately in chambers. Meantime, Chestertown was alive with gossip and rumor.
"You (can) just feel the tension in the air," one courthouse secretary told a Dover, Del., newspaper reporter at the time. "Nobody can work without knowing what's going on."
Juries in Chestertown, some residents say, have been sympathetic to locals accused of crimes.
"I have always said the most wonderful place in the country to commit a crime was in Chestertown," says Mackey Streit, a Chestertown native with dozens of relatives in the town and county. "If you are a native, you can do anything you want and a local jury will never convict you." After hearing four days of testimony from 40 witnesses, the jurors were given the case at 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in April 1976. They deliberated until 1 a.m. the next morning, when a judge pronounced them "hopelessly deadlocked," sent them home and called a mistrial.
That same night, word raced through Chestertown about what had gone on in the jury room deliberations. Ten jurors had wanted to to acquit Crowding, according to Rasin. But the remaining two jurors stubbornly refused to finddthe treasurer anything but guilty. One of those dissenting jurors was Ann McLain, a lifelong county resident.
She was a prominent woman in town by virtue of her position as the wife of the president of Washington College, the private college that is the main employer in Chestertown. McLain's phone rang that night and she was denounced by anonymous partisans of Crowding. She later complained of harassment to Judge Rasin, the jurist who had disqualified himself from the case.
Snubbing McLain and the other dissenting juror is something that Daisy H. (Hadaway) Lee readily admits to. She is Crowding's aunt, the widow of former treasurer Robert E. Lee. She raised Crowding from a baby after the death of the girl's mother.
"We snub her (Ann McLain)," says Lee. "We hope she notices it."
After the mistrial, prosecutor Parks sought to move the second trial out of the county. Usually, a change of venue is requested by defense lawyers seeking jurors who haven't been prejudiced by local publicity. Parks recalls, however, that "the uproar over the first trial got too many people involved in the case. Neither side could get a fair trial."
Crowding's family objected and her lawyers protested the move to Calvert County in southern Maryland. One of Crowding's best friends, Wanda Booth, who now lives in Media, Pa., still denounces the change of venue. She equates Calvert County, a rural county south of Annapolis, with "Afghanistan."
In Calvert County in September 1976, after a four-day trial, a jury deliberated 90 minutes and found Crowding guilty of 28 counts of embezzlement and 11 counts of forgery. The next month, Crowding was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a judge who told her he took "a dim view of someone in your position in the community breaking the public trust." The judge also ordered Crowding to repay the $12,523.89 she was convicted of embezzling.
Through it all, Crowding steadfastly maintained her innocence. She testified she was duped by the deputy treasurer. After Crowding began serving her sentence at the Maryland Correctio testimonal Institution for Women at Jessup, her relatives returned to Chestertown and commenced raising money to pay back the embezzled tax money.
Daisy Lee placed an advertisement in the Kent County News asking for checks from "anyone interested in helping Betty Anne."
"I had lots of response," Lee recalls. "I got over $4,000 in donations. I paid off the rest, with the help of family."
After 18 days in prison, where Lee says Crowding "had a nervous breakdown," the former county treasurer was released. As long "as the money was paid back," prosecutor Parks said he had no objection to the suspension of the rest of Crowding's 10-year sentence.
"She paid the price, she got the heat, she deserves to get along with her life," Parks says. He does not like to talk about the case.
Crowding came home to Chestertown and has not worked since. She has "problems with her nerves" and receives Social Security disability payments, according to her aunt. Neighbors in Chestertown say they see Crowding, who is extremely thin, shopping for groceries at the A&P.
Crowding was not available for interview for this article. Booth, her friend in Media, Pa., whom Crowding was visiting recently, said she was "too sick to come to the phone" to talk to a reporter.
Two years after the trial, when Floyd Parks ran for reelection as state's attorney, he was defeated by 150 votes. The local phone book lists 186 Hadaways, Robinsons and Crowdings. Parks' early fears of crossing Crowding's kin were apparently justified.
"It is true that they banded against me and saw to it that I was not reelected," Parks says. Daisy Lee says Parks is justified in blaming his defeat on familial revenge.
"Well, would you have voted for him?" Lee asks.
In the same year that the Hadaways and the Robinsons helped knock Parks out of office, the Crowding scandal again asserted its small-town style.
Crowding and her aunt, who have lived together since Crowding got out of prison, moved into an apartment house directly across the street from Parks' home. Nearly every day since, the prosecutor and the prosecuted see each other.
"I wave and say hello," says Parks.
According to Lee, who says she never waves to the prosecutor, "Betty waves to him sometimes, and sometimes she don't."