Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said yesterday that his office will investigate allegations by Montgomery County Council member Rose Crenca that she was offered money by a civic activist if she voted to limit development in Silver Spring.
Montanarelli made the decision after receiving a letter from Montgomery County State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner, who said the state prosecutor, an independent unit within the Office of the Attorney General, is in a better position to investigate the accusations Crenca made this month.
Crenca, in a political controversy that has confounded a county that prides itself on twin heritages of good government and an active citizenry, said that Joan Ennis, president of the Allied Civic Group and an opponent of large-scale redevelopment in Silver Spring, offered her money during a September lunch.
Ennis has vehemently denied the allegation, calling it a "bloody lie."
The incident was a bitter footnote to the fierce Silver Spring redevelopment battle, further estranging Crenca from the Silver Spring civic movement that launched her political rise.
Crenca was president of the council when, casting the swing vote on the council in November, she voted to lift Silver Spring development limits.
Crenca called Montanarelli's decision "appropriate" and said she would cooperate in any aspect of the investigation.
Ennis, a professional musician, said she was "completely astounded" by the prosecutor's decision and had no other comment.
Montanarelli's office is the third to be referred the case. Montgomery County Attorney Clyde H. Sorrell referred the matter to Sonner's office after the allegations were publicized in a newspaper article.
Sonner, in a Dec. 24 letter to Montanarelli, said his office had made a preliminary evaluation of the accusations and "we would prefer to have the state prosecutor's office conduct the investigation and, if warranted, handle any prosecutions that result from the investigation."
Sonner said he had no doubt his office could do a fair and thorough investigation. But his letter said that because Montanarelli's office "is completely removed from the governmental operations of Montgomery County and not connected in any way with the principals who have been identified thus far, you are in a better position to proceed."
"It is more for appearance than anything else," Sonner said in an interview yesterday.
He denied a suggestion that referral to the state prosecutor's office might be a convenient way to pass the buck on what many see as a bizarre case that is unlikely to be prosecuted.
The matter warrants being looked into, Sonner said. "If you believe the allegations . . . the allegations constitute a bribe."
There is, he said, a prima facie case based on what has been in the newspapers. "Of course, you don't charge people based on what you read in the newspaper," Sonner said, explaining that a person's intent, sophistication and ability must be considered when determining what constitutes an attempted bribe.
By law, the state prosecutor's office, in operation since 1977, may investigate political corruption cases.
Montanarelli said that his office would first determine in a preliminary inquiry that would take between 30 and 90 days whether a crime has occurred and whether and how to proceed.
He said state police assigned to his office most likely would conduct the initial interviews.