A Circuit Court judge said Friday that he intends to reverse a ruling he made in St. Mary's County two weeks ago that dismissed an extortion charge against a Leonardtown lawyer, saying he misread the state statute.
Vincent J. Femia, a visiting retired circuit judge from Prince George's County, dismissed the extortion charge against Joseph C. Ashworth.
The lawyer, indicted in April, was accused of trying to extort $155,000 from a dentist. The judge ruled June 29 that the statute the government used to secure the indictment was unconstitutional.
But during an interview with The Washington Post on Friday, Femia said it occurred to him that he had misread the law. The judge said he thought the law had been changed recently, thus leaving it open to challenge because it had not been ruled on by a court. But Femia said the statute had remained unchanged for nearly 50 years, and it was not his place to challenge the law.
"You've made me review this, which is more than the attorney did," Femia said in an interview. "As I review it, I think I'm in error. I think I mistakenly dismissed that indictment. I just thought it was overly [broad], but I'm wrong."
However, what happens now is unclear. Femia said he intended to reschedule the case for July 21 so he could reverse his ruling and reinstate the charge. But the St. Mary's state's attorney's office, along with Ashworth's attorney, said Femia no longer has jurisdiction over the case because it has already been appealed.
The indictment alleged that Ashworth tried to extort money from Neal A. Zabiegalski, a Lexington Park dentist, after two of Zabiegalski's employees came to Ashworth. The employees wanted to sue Zabiegalski, alleging he sexually harassed them and some of his patients, said Ashworth's attorney, Leslie McAdoo.
Ashworth sent Zabiegalski a letter in the fall, threatening to tell police that the doctor assaulted co-workers and abused patients while they were under anesthetic. He further wrote that he would be willing not to pursue charges if the doctor gave his clients $155,000.
In a second letter, the amount dropped to $125,000, McAdoo said. Zabiegalski considered the letters extortion and took the matter to the state's attorney's office, which sought the indictment.
The state's attorney's office arrested Ashworth, saying he violated a section of Maryland's extortion code that prohibits someone from gaining money from a person by "sending or delivering . . . a writing, threatening to accuse any person of a crime . . . "
Detectives found the harassment allegations to be unfounded, and no lawsuit has been filed against Zabiegalski.
Two weeks ago in St. Mary's County Circuit Court in Leonardtown, Femia rejected the extortion charges. The judge said the statute the government was citing was unconstitutional. He said its enforcement would make it difficult for lawyers to do their jobs.
Femia said Friday that he thought the statute had new language, added only in recent years, and that he reluctantly dismissed the charges. He said that even though he still considered the law unconstitutional, he believed it was not his place to challenge it.
"The reason I jumped on this was because it looked to me that it was a brand-new addition, but obviously it's not, and obviously I missed it, so I don't think I had the authority," Femia said. "I just think it's bad for a trial judge to be doing that. I never have done it before, and I really didn't want to do it this time. Now that I read that it's been the law since '57, I think it's for a higher court to make that decision, so I'm going to go back and reverse myself."
St. Mary's Assistant State's Attorney Daniel White said he told Femia of the statute's long history at the court hearing, "and I apparently didn't do a good job." He said that the statute has long been used and that courts have previously debated its constitutionality.
"I'm not here to say the judge is wrong," White said, responding to Femia's decision to reinstate the charge. "I'm saying that we read that statute differently, and, as he said, it's for a higher court to determine who's right."
The case has been sent to the state Court of Special Appeals.
Femia also ruled during the June 29 hearing that the St. Mary's state's attorney office should not handle two theft charges filed against Ashworth and his wife, Melinda R. Rossignol-Ashworth because the office may have a personal agenda for prosecuting.
Femia agreed with McAdoo's argument that the office may have been biased when it filed the charges against the Ashworths.
The charges stem from what McAdoo calls a simple "fee dispute," in which Michael J. Reamy of Annapolis, Ashworth's client, said that after he and Ashworth won an $80,000 settlement, he was not properly compensated. The indictment also charged Ashworth's wife, who works as a paralegal.
Ashworth eventually gave a large sum to Reamy, but Reamy went to court to get more, saying he had never agreed to the amount of fees charged by Ashworth, according to court documents. McAdoo disagreed, saying Reamy agreed to the payment arrangement.
McAdoo argued before Femia that the case should be thrown out because St. Mary's State's Attorney Richard D. Fritz had a personal stake in the issue.
Rossignol-Ashworth's brother, Kenneth C. Rossignol, the publisher of St. Mary's Today, a newspaper in St. Mary's County, filed a lawsuit over a pre-dawn roundup of a 1998 election-eve edition of the newspaper by sheriff's deputies that featured an unfavorable article about Fritz.
"It can have the appearance of impropriety," Femia said Friday. "It can have the appearance of the prosecutor using his office to get back at Rossignol. Without commenting on the efficacy of the indictments, for his office to do it looks bad."
White said there was no conflict. "The fact that Mr. Fritz is being sued by a newspaper publisher doesn't create a legal conflict for everyone in his family," White said.
Femia ruled that the case should be referred to the attorney general's office. It's unclear when it will be heard.
If the extortion charges against Ashworth are reinstated, it's also unclear whether the state's attorney's office will be allowed to handle the prosecution, White said.
"If he's disqualified us from the theft case, I don't know what his position will be on the extortion case," White said.
McAdoo said the state's attorney's office should not handle the case if the extortion charges are reinstated. She declined to comment on Femia's decision Friday because she had not heard about it through official channels.
Ashworth, meanwhile, is not practicing law after the Maryland Court of Appeals suspended him indefinitely last month, finding that he misstated the placement of disputed funds from a settlement reached for another client.