Everytime a prominent Maryland politician runs into legal trouble, the news seems to come out of the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore. Federal prosecution of political corruption cases has become as traditional in Maryland as crabcakes.
Some mighty big political scalps hang on the belts of federal prosecutors, names like Spiro T. Agnew, Marvin Mandel, Dale Anderson, Joseph W. Alton Jr., A Gordon Boone, Jesse Beggett, Thomas F. Johnson, Irvin Kovens, W. Dale Hess and Harry W. Rodgers III.
The good name of Maryland politicians is not the only casualty of the federal court juggernaut. With every successful prosecution by the U.S. attorney, the state's local prosecutors have come under criticism for not cleaning up their own houses.
This year, as in the past, Maryland's General Assembly is considering major reforms of the state's anti-corruption laws. The proposals are designed to close loopholes and augment powers of local state's attorneys to prosecute acts of public venality.
Without changes in present statutes, local prosecutors say, they cannot be blamed for failing to prosecute public officials. The criminal laws in Maryland - unlike more generous federal statutes - discourage investigations of political corruption, they say.
"We want to do our job and ferret out corruption in Maryland, but we don't have the tools," Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor told a Senate committee. "I ask you for the ability to do the job I want to do."
The proposals under consideration by the legislature are designed to correct three glaring deficiencies of Maryland's anti-corruption laws centering on statutes of limitation, immunity for witnesses and applicability.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for state's attorneys is a one-year statute of limitation for prosecu tion of conflicts of interest, violations of election laws and misfeasance, malfeasance and nonfeasance in office.
Most prosecutors say a solid political corruption case requires at least three years to thoroughly analyze a suspect's financial background, interrogate and line up witnesses, collect corroborating evidence and convince a grand jury to indict.
A bill under consideration by this session of the legislature would extend the statute of limitations from one year to three years for political corruption cases. The prosecution would have to begin within three years after a crime is committed.
The second major stumbling block for state prosecutors is the limit place on immunity for witnesses. Under present statutes, state's attorneys in Maryland can only compel witnesses to testify with a grant of immunity in bribery cases.
Without broader powers to grand immunity, local prosecutors say, they cannot assure vital testimony to seal political corruption cases. Federal prosecutors liberally use the tool as part of the theory that "small fish help catch big fish.
A bill now being drafted for this session would allow state's attorneys to compel testimony under a grant of immunity for all types of political corruption. Before imposing immunity, prosecutors would have to obtain approval from a court.
The third weakness in Maryland statutes come in the form of a restrictive clause in state bribery laws making it illegal for a public official to accept fees "for the purpose of influencing him in the performance of his official duties."
That qualifying phrase rules out state prosecutions of officials who take money for services unrelated to their "official duties," such as former Del. George J. Santoni, who was convicted on federal charges of extorting money from businessmen in exchange for demolition contracts awarded by Baltimore city.
A designed to remedy that flaw would extend the law to crimes committed outside the realm of one's "official duties." The bill would make it illegal for a public official to take money "under color or pretense of office."
The sheath of "prosecutor's bills" now before the legislature gives lawmakers a chance to strengthen the hand of local state's attorneys and a new statewide prosecutor who has the power to investigate political corruption anywhere in Maryland.
The office of state prosecutor was set up by a constitutional amendment last year amid charges that local state's attorneys were dragging their feet on prosecutions of local officials who often belong to the same political organizations as the law enforcers.
Among the strongest advocates of the recommended reforms is State Prosecutor Gerald D. Glass, who finds himself in an ambitious new role with the same shackles as local state's attorneys.
"We have to develop tools to allow the state to resurrect its dignity," Glass told a Senate committee. "If Maryland is to assume its proper role in its own Maryland is to assume its proper role in its own house cleaning, it has to have the proper implements."