State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli yesterday charged that a bill to merge his office into the attorney general's office is political retaliation for his role in the prosecution of Gary Huddles, a longtime friend of Del. Richard Rynd, the measure's sponsor.
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the proposal, Mr. Montanarelli said that Mr. Huddles' attorneys, Robert Schulman and Joshua Treem, had warned him before Mr. Huddles, a former Baltimore County councilman, was indicted "that there would be retaliation" for going ahead with the case.
"I am here today defending my office because I prosecuted a former councilman," Mr. Montanarelli told the committee.
The bill, which has been pitched by Delegate Rynd, D-Baltimore County, as a cost-cutting measure, effectively would end the independence of the prosecutor's office. And it would give the attorney general, an elected official, the power to appoint or fire a state prosecutor, as well as the power to approve or block investigations.
Mr. Montanarelli argued that the threats he received are the best argument for keeping his office independent of the influence of any elected official. But after the meeting, Mr. Schulman denied that he had ever issued any such warning. "Absolutely, positively not," he said. "That's a joke.
Mr. Rynd earlier had denied any ulterior motives in sponsoring the bill. And Mr. Huddles has said he knew nothing of the measure until after it was introduced.
Mr. Rynd and Mr. Huddles' two defense attorneys were the only witnesses to testify in favor of the bill.
Mr. Rynd said he believed the state could save $500,000 by merging the prosecutor's office with the larger attorney general's office, although the entire budget of the 11-member prosecutor's office is $700,000. But a state fiscal report on the proposal estimated roughly $231,000 in savings from the merger.
Mr. Rynd also told the committee the merger would result in greater efficiency of the operation. Both Mr. Schulman and Mr. Rynd charged that the office has a poor conviction record, and that most of the cases it has taken have been against minor officials or private citizens who often get probation or are found -- not guilty. "Their record is abysmal," said Mr. Schulman, a former federal prosecutor himself.
But Mr. Montanarelli, who has held the job since 1984, disputed that charge, too, arguing he doesn't take cases based on the probability of getting a conviction. He noted that most of the people investigated by his office are popular, high-profile individuals.
Mr. Montanarelli claims a conviction rate of 69 percent.
But "we have not kept batting averages," he said. "Conviction rate is not indicative of quality."
Dwight Cramer, president of Common Cause of Maryland, agreed. He testified against the bill, warning committee members that a truly independent prosecutor is necessary to help maintain the public's faith in the integrity of government, and that the proposed merger could make the state prosecutor vulnerable to political pressure.
"This bill abolishes the state prosecutor. Make no mistake about that," Mr. Montanarelli said.
The state prosecutor's office was established in 1977 in the wake of a series of Maryland political corruption scandals, as an independent investigative agency, to find and root out wrongdoing by elected state officials.
In 1991, Mr. Montanarelli prosecuted Mr. Huddles for taking more than $50,000 from his leftover campaign funds and using it to cover stock market losses. Mr. Huddles later paid back the money, and last November was found not guilty of theft.
At least one member of the Judiciary Committee said privately that the bill has a good chance at passage because of general legislative wariness and fear of the state prosecutor. And committee Chairman John Arnick, D-Baltimore County, said that while he could not predict how the committee would vote, the state prosecutor's office "may have outlived its usefulness."