When Democratic Del. Tony E. Fulton, of Baltimore, was indicted on charges of helping Annapolis lobbyist Gerard E. Evans to defraud the lobbyist's clients of $400,000, a lot of Republicans were tut-tutting about the alleged scheme as another sign of what has happened in Maryland after decades of one-party rule by the Democrats.
But institutionally, the GOP was not weighing in with any complaints because Fulton's lawyer--to the chagrin of many Republicans--is state Chairman Richard D. Bennett.
Bennett, who was Ellen R. Sauerbrey's running mate in the last governor's race, is a former U.S. attorney for Maryland who now heads the white-collar crime section of Miles & Stockbridge, a major statewide law firm.
"Dick Bennett as state party chairman is the primary spokesman for the Maryland Republican Party. And while he's simultaneously wearing his defense lawyer's cap, that prevents him from performing that spokesman's function during this corruption case," said Carol Arscott, a pollster and the former GOP chairman in Howard County.
She said that Republican legislators would be reluctant to criticize Fulton because they must remain collegial during the General Assembly session and that it was up to party officials to denounce the alleged corruption.
"Maryland Republicans for years have argued that the one-party rule system corrupts," Arscott said. "Here you are at the start of a legislative session with a pretty good example of that, and party officials are gagged."
GOP consultant Kevin Igoe agreed: "His representation [of Fulton] makes it more difficult for people to draw differences between the parties and make the case against one-party rule."
House Minority Leader Robert L. Flanagan, of Howard County, was less critical but still had concerns. He said the party should not criticize Fulton, who has the presumption of innocence. But he said the case would raise larger issues of the role of lobbyists and lawmakers and the need for new legislation to govern their relationships.
Lawyers who also are active in politics at Bennett's level have to walk a line between balancing their legal and political duties, Flanagan said. "It's important to be careful in selecting your clients so [that you] can be true to your obligations in both arenas," he said. Bennett "might be limited in his ability to participate because of his role in defending Tony Fulton."
For his part, Bennett said Fulton is innocent and that he would represent him vigorously. He also said he was aware of the potential for conflict but had, after some thought, said he didn't see any between his role as Fulton's lawyer and GOP chairman.
"These charges have nothing to do with the Glendening administration or the state Democratic Party," Bennett said. "If I felt at any time there was a conflict, I would deal with it."
He said Fulton was friends with another lawyer at his law firm, Neal M. Janey, a Democrat who once served as city solicitor in Baltimore, and that's how he came to represent the delegate.
"This is what I do," Bennett said.
Changes Pondered in Howard
Howard County legislators seem to want to make some changes to the school board. The 11-member delegation already has agreed to push for pay raises for the board, and it is pondering whether to create districts from which to elect school board members, rather than having them chosen countywide.
Now, the delegation is considering a proposal to add two board members to the five-person panel and to scale back terms from six years to four. The ideas come as the county grapples with complaints of inequalities between older and newer schools and looks for ways to handle crowded classrooms in the booming suburban area.
State Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard) said she and state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Howard) have asked the delegation to look at the latest proposal. If it agrees, the group would hear testimony on it at a Feb. 15 hearing in Annapolis, where it will consider a number of other local bill requests.
The earlier suggestion to elect school board members from districts, which was pushed by state Del. Frank S. Turner (D-Howard), doesn't appear to have the support necessary to pass the delegation, but it is still under consideration. Turner has fought for the change in an effort to provide racial and geographic diversity on the board, he said.
Bobo, who does not support Turner's bill, says that adding two positions to the school board would help achieve a similar goal. "By virtue of the fact that there are more members, we would have a better chance of getting greater diversity of opinion," she said. Bobo also said that having more members would allow them to keep better track of what's going on in schools.
"The more they could be personally involved in the schools, the better," she said.
But school board member Karen B. Campbell disagrees. "I don't think it's necessary, and I don't think it lightens the load," she said. "In other counties who have seven to 12 members, they break up into committees, and not every board member sits in on all the hearings and so forth. We have felt that by all of us doing all of those things, that it made each of us better informed across the board, and I subscribe to that theory."
As for adding diversity to the board, Campbell said there is no way to guarantee a diverse group. She said the current structure works well for Howard County. "It's big enough to have multiple perspectives, but too small to have cliques. I think that is . . . one of the reasons that the Howard County board is known statewide for being very much a team."
She and the rest of the school board also oppose going to four-year terms. "Neither going to seven [members] nor going to four-year terms will be the end of the world, but I think that it's better the way it is now," Campbell said.
You would expect legislative response to be swift when a triple-murder conviction gets thrown out on a perceived technicality.
And so state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Montgomery) will try during the next General Assembly session to make sure that James Edward Perry, who was recently granted a new trial on three counts of murder, is the last convict to benefit from what the senator believes is a confusing state wiretapping law.
A divided Maryland Court of Appeals ruled this month that Perry must be tried again in the slaying of Mildred Horn, her 8-year-old quadriplegic son, Trevor, and the nurse who cared for him. Prosecutors said Perry was hired by Lawrence Horn, the boy's father, who stood to inherit the boy's trust fund that included a $1.7 million malpractice settlement--and a jury agreed. The 1993 crime was committed in Silver Spring.
Lawrence Horn is serving three life terms, and his conviction remains intact. But Perry will receive a new trial, perhaps as early as next spring, after the court ruled that a 22-second recording of a phone call between the two men should not have been allowed as evidence. The state's wiretapping law, among the strictest in the country, requires both parties in a conversation to consent to its taping. Perry had not done so.
Van Hollen said he will propose a bill that would make it harder to apply the wiretapping law in cases involving criminal conspiracy because, he said, the court ruling "will only further undermine public confidence in our judicial system."
Certainly, over the past two years, no Maryland law has drawn more attention than this one. It is at the heart of the case against Linda R. Tripp, whose recorded conversations with Monica S. Lewinsky helped lead to the impeachment of a president. Tripp is scheduled to stand trial for allegedly breaking the law next year.
But Van Hollen has no desire to help out Tripp. Indeed, an explanatory headline on his news release announcing the proposal last week leaves little room for misinterpretation: "Proposed Law Would Not Effect Cases Like That Against Linda Tripp." The change would only affect cases involving criminal conspiracy, Van Hollen said.
"They [Tripp and Lewinsky] were just having a conversation," he explained. "They weren't planning a crime. If you've got a conversation between two criminal conspirators--planning a crime or committing a crime--you should be allowed to use it. I think most people would be shocked to know you can't."
"My intent is to make it so they can't hide behind Maryland's wiretapping law," Van Hollen said.