WESTMINSTER — Fresh from successfully arguing against a motion to overturn a plea bargain in a drug case, two members of the State's Attorney's Office now are the subject of a grievance proceeding.
Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. mentioned the grievance Monday during a hearing on a motion by Fernando A. Hernandez to withdraw his September guilty plea tocharges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
As part of the agreement, Howard County charges of distribution of cocaine were dropped and similar charges pending in Frederick County never were filed.
Burns was responding to a request from Judith S. Stainbrook, an attorney representing Hernandez, that he disqualifyhimself from the case based on comments he made last week in chambers.
"You said you would leave it up to us to solve at the appellatelevel," Stainbrook said, adding she interpreted the judge's remarks to mean that he already had decided to deny the motion.
In his refusal to disqualify himself, Burns said Stainbrook neglected to mention another part of that conversation, a comment regarding a grievance filed by Stainbrook and her partner Stephen Bourexis against State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman and Assistant State's Attorney Barton F. Walker. The complaint is being investigated by the state Attorney Grievance Commission.
Stainbrook said she was surprised the judge would mention the grievance in open court, saying she did not bring it upherself to keep the proceeding confidential.
Should the panel find the grievance -- the nature of which is now confidential -- has merit, it could release the results of the investigation and impose sanctions against Hickman and Walker. If no merit is found, no results would be released.
Most of Monday's testimony revolved around publicity of the plea agreement before the trial.
Carroll County Sun reporter Maria Archangelo, whose story about the agreement was publishedthe day before the Sept. 12 court date, was called by the state as awitness.
Bourexis objected to the Carroll County Sun article being introduced as evidence. But Burns, waving the article in the air, said the Carroll County Sun story was the source for other media reports.
Burns earlier had granted a motion by Mary R. Craig, a lawyer representing The Baltimore Sun, that allowed Archangelo to invoke theMaryland Shield Law. The law protects reporters from being forced totestify about anything not published or broadcast, such as news sources.
Archangelo did testify, but on the advice of Craig answered only questions directly related to information published in the story.
When Hickman tried to question Archangelo about her sources for information about the plea bargain, Craig objected. Burns did not require Archangelo to answer.
Earlier, the defense called several media representatives to the stand. None fought the subpoenas.
CarrollCounty Times reporter Tim Cook testified that his story, which appeared the day of the trial, was rewritten from an Associated Press account, after checking the information with Hickman.
Under cross-examination by Hickman, Cook said he did not know the source of the AP story.
Liz Hyatt, news director at Prestige Cablevision, testified she came to court Sept. 12 with a request to interview Hernandez because she "had read an article (not in the Times) about a plea."
Dwight Dingle, general manager of WTTR Radio, said he was told by News Director Lisa Becker that the story she broadcast Sept. 12 was rewritten from the Times.
Noting the pattern of various members of the news media rewriting stories from another source, Burns noted wryly, "It's nice to know there is such cooperation between the radio station
and the Carroll County Times and The Baltimore Sun."
Also subpoenaed by the defense was Carroll County Sun Editor Edward H. Shur. Bourexis said he wanted to know if any pressure was exerted to publish the article before the trial. But Craig argued that Shur also was protected by the Shield Law, and Burns ruled Shur did not have to take the stand.
Despite the victory in the courtroom, Hickman later expressed displeasure with The Baltimore Sun's refusal to answer questions.
"I'm incredibly disappointed by The Baltimore Sun," Hickman said. "We were told her editor pressured her and pressured her. "I was told (the story) was to be a post-plea story, not a pre-plea story. (The Baltimore Sun) really spun us around in there."
Shur later denied pressuring Archangelo.
"Maria came to me with breaking information that no one else had about an important case," Shur said. "We followed our normal policy."
Archangelo agreed, adding she never discussed publication dates with Hickman.
Both Hernandez and his wife Bonnie, who also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, testified that seeing newspaper accounts of the pending plea agreementbefore the trial upset Fernando Hernandez. The defense contended Hernandez was distraught, felt he had been lied to by prosecutors and had no choice but to accept the plea agreement.
On the stand, Hernandez said he thought he would be pleading not guilty. He said he pleaded guilty on the advice of his lawyers.
He accused the State's Attorney's Office of misleading him and complained about treatment by prosecutors and Judge Raymond E. Beck during a hearing before the plea agreement, which resulted in a 14-year jail sentence.
During one point in the suppression hearing, Hernandez said, "I realized Mr. Hickman and Judge Beck were laughing at the lawyers representing us."
Reporter Darren Allen contributed to this article.