Maryland state police are looking into reports that Prince George's County District Court Judge Sylvania Woods collected funds from lawyers in the county for his son's House of Delegates campaign last fall.
According to court sources in Prince George's County, the matter was reported late last year to some Circuit Court judges, who then informed Chief District Court Judge Robert F. Sweeney in Annapolis. The sources said Sweeney reported the matter to the state Judicial Disabilities Commission, which investigates complaints about sitting judges. Sweeney declined to comment yesterday.
The Maryland Rules of Judicial Ethics regulate a judge's conduct with lawyers and other persons who may appear before him, in an effort to avoid any appearance of impropriety. One rule states that "a judge shall not, directly or indirectly, lend the influence of his name or the prestige of his office to aid or advance the welfare of any private business, or permit others to do so. He shall not personally solicit funds for any purpose, charitable or otherwise."
The Judicial Disabilties Commission has the power to investigate complaints about judges, and can issue reprimands. It also can recommend to the Maryland Court of Appeals that a judge be censured, removed or asked to resign.
Judge Woods said yesterday that he did not know of any investigation into his conduct. "I certainly haven't committed any wrongdoing," Woods said. He declined further comment.
Court sources said that some county judges were interviewed by state police investigators last month. One lawyer who gave money to the campaign also said he was interviewed by state police last month.
At least 69 lawyers in the county contributed to Del. Sylvania Woods Jr.'s reelection campaign last year. Some of those told The Washington Post they gave money to the son, and others refused to say how their contributions were collected. Several said that they either had given their contributions to Judge Woods, or the judge had asked them if they planned to contribute. They said that the judge put no pressure on them.
Cheverly attorney Paul Murphy, who sometimes practices before Woods, said the judge asked him directly about campaign contributions sometime in the fall, but added that he thought "it was plain dumbness" on Woods' part. Murphy said he passed the judge as he was leaving his office on Landover Road when "[the judge] said: 'Are you going to contribute to my son?' and I said 'Hold on."
Murphy said he then went back into his office and wrote out the check, and gave it to the judge. He said he didn't think anything of it at the time.
"He wasn't thinking," Murphy said. "To me, he's a very fair judge. He treats everyone equally." Murphy said that if he had not contributed, Woods would not have treated him any differently were Murphy to appear before him.
Salvatore Daniello, a Greenbelt attorney, said he saw the judge in Daniello's office in the fall, and gave him a campaign check for $100.
Daniello said he had contributed to the younger Woods' 1978 campaign for the delegate's seat, and planned to do so last year, and that the father's visit had nothing to do with his contribution. He said he had received a letter from the son asking for money.
"It just so happened that I happened to give the check to his father," Daniello said. " The judge never solicited."
Samuel Serio, whose law firm gave $100 to the 1982 reelection campaign, said the subject of contributions came up during a casual conversation he had with Judge Woods in the fall. "He put no heat on me," Serio said, adding that the entire conversation was "very innocuous."
Daniello, Serio and Murphy all said they had not been contacted by state police investigators. But Bowie attorney Eugene M. Zoglio, who mailed a $50 contribution directly to the reelection campaign, said he was interviewed by state police about three weeks ago, and that he knew other attorneys had been questioned as well.
Del. Sylvania Woods Jr. said he knew nothing about his father collecting funds for his campaign, but that "when you are a 'junior' . . . I'm sure there are probably occasions when people may have walked up to him his father and said, 'Hey, give this to your son.' "
The delegate said he mailed letters asking for contributions last fall to about 500 members of the county bar association, and that a team of five county lawyers followed up with telephone calls.