Jerry Romer knew just whom to ask for help early this year when Prince George's County threatened to enforce new rules that would have slashed profits for the home-detention company he owns and perhaps even forced him out of business.
Romer, co-owner of Home Tracking Inc. in Upper Marlboro, which supervises criminal defendants under house arrest, contacted an old friend: Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's), a longtime state lawmaker. "I said to Vallario, 'This county law will put us all out of business. . . . Can you take a look?' " Romer recalled.
Help came within weeks. Asked by Vallario to look into the matter, the Maryland attorney general's office issued a legal opinion March 11 concluding that the county did not have the authority to regulate home-detention companies. Prince George's officials backed down.
As the influential chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Vallario was well positioned to provide assistance.
Public records show, however, that Vallario also has personal business ties to the home-detention industry. Two of the seven private home-detention services that operate in Maryland--and the only two in Prince George's County--rent office space from a real estate partnership in which Vallario is a part owner. One of the tenants is Romer's firm.
Vallario holds a one-third interest in the partnership, V M Properties L.L.C., which owns several commercial buildings surrounding the Prince George's County Courthouse in Upper Marlboro, according to tax and deed records and financial disclosure statements that Vallario filed with the State Ethics Commission.
The partnership's articles of organization, which were filed in December 1992, list Walter M. Meinhardt Sr., of Brandywine, as a member authorized to do business on behalf of the group.
On the second floor of one of the partnership's buildings--5302 Water St.--are the offices for Home Tracking Inc. and Monitoring Services Inc.
Together, the two companies pay about $800 a month in rent. Vallario serves as the landlord, collecting the rent checks and even fixing toilets and replacing Venetian blinds himself, according to the tenants.
In an interview this week, Vallario said it was not an ethical or economic conflict of interest for him to vote on legislation affecting home-detention companies. He defended his decision to assist Home Tracking Inc. when it asked for his help in fending off county regulators, saying he would have taken similar action on behalf of any constituent.
"I don't think there's anything here we could call a conflict," Vallario said. "I don't have a business relationship with them. They rent from a company in which I have a one-third interest."
Home detention is a form of house arrest in which defendants and convicts are confined to their homes during certain hours. Local governments have been running home-detention programs in the Washington area since the mid-1980s, largely as a way to relieve jail overcrowding. Private home-detention services opened when government-run programs began to fill up.
Vallario said he voted for legislation that authorized the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to come up with standards to govern the industry and gave it until July 1 of this year to put new rules into effect.
"We wanted the department to put in the regulations that they wanted," he said.
But Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's) said that Vallario's Judiciary Committee played a pivotal role in defeating other proposals that would have placed tighter restrictions on home-detention firms.
"For two years, we've had strong pieces of legislation that would regulate private home-detention companies that were sent to the Judiciary Committee," Hubbard said. "For some reason, that committee, under the leadership of its chairman, has seen fit not to move in that direction."
Hubbard said his bills failed because some home-detention firms--including Romer's--testified that complying with the proposals would have been expensive for them.
"It seems money, but not public safety, was the driving force behind it," Hubbard said.
Vallario did not cast votes on Hubbard's bills while they were in his committee, saying that it is customary for the chairman not to vote unless there is a tie.
Vallario said it was "ridiculous" to consider his landlord-tenant relationship with the home-detention companies as a conflict.
"I can't list all of these people I get rent from," he added. "I own some farmland, and the guy there used to farm some tobacco. I don't have any idea if he does anymore. But I voted for the tobacco bill. Do I have a conflict?"
Lawmakers are required to file "disclaimer statements" with the Joint Committee of Legislative Ethics whenever they face the appearance of a conflict of interest in regard to a specific bill. Under Maryland law, legislators can vote on a bill in which they have a potential conflict as long as they disclose the situation publicly to the committee.
Records show that Vallario has not filed any disclaimer statements in regard to bills that would regulate home-detention companies. "It never, ever even crossed my mind," he said.
Since he was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1974, Vallario has filed six disclaimer statements in which he disclosed a possible conflict with specific bills. Most of the bills dealt with general legal reform--such as contingency fees for lawyers--which potentially could have affected Vallario's law practice in Suitland.
The lack of oversight of home-detention firms came under harsh criticism last month after The Washington Post reported that a suspect charged with first-degree murder in the June 16 shooting death of a Capitol Heights woman was an accused cocaine dealer who was supposed to be under the supervision of Romer's firm, Home Tracking Inc.
For years, private home-detention services were not required to follow any guidelines or standards, or even to be licensed by the state. Until this month, the companies themselves decided how to monitor their clients' whereabouts, usually with electronic ankle cuffs or by random telephone checks.
Private home detention first attracted public scrutiny in 1997, after an armed-robbery suspect in Prince George's County allegedly raped three women and robbed two others while under the watch of Monitoring Services Inc., the other private home-detention program that rents office space from Vallario's partnership.
In 1998, the General Assembly passed legislation that requires home-detention firms to register with the state. Regulations that went into effect July 1 require firms to be licensed by the state, file monthly reports, disclose violations within 24 hours and use ankle bracelets to track their clients.
In November 1997, the Prince George's County Council passed legislation that required home-detention firms to obtain a business license and acquire liability insurance. The law also required firms to give the county a daily report naming all clients under their supervision and whether they had violated any terms of their confinement.
County officials did not attempt to enforce the law for more than a year, saying they needed time to determine who would oversee the new regulations. In January, the county notified home-detention firms that the rules were about to go into effect and that the companies would be required to secure liability insurance policies with at least $2 million in coverage.
Romer said the insurance was cost-prohibitive and would have forced Home Tracking Inc. to close its doors. He asked Vallario to intervene.
Vallario, in turn, asked the staff lawyer from the Judiciary Committee to ask the attorney general's office to review the county law. Maryland Assistant Attorney General Richard E. Israel issued a legal opinion March 11 concluding that counties do not have the authority to regulate home-detention companies because the state now has its own law on the subject.
CAPTION: Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.