Fulton wins a quick acquittal on charges of misusing funds

May 08, 1992|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff Writer

A Baltimore Circuit Court jury deliberated just 40 minutes yesterday before finding state Del. Tony E. Fulton innocent of stealing money during his 1990 re-election campaign.

Mr. Fulton was acquitted of two counts of felony theft and misdemeanor misconduct. Had he been convicted, Mr. Fulton would have faced up to 30 years in jail and expulsion from office.

"It was obvious that the charges were bogus, and given the fact that the jury only stayed out a half-hour or so, it seems they were convinced, too," said an elated Mr. Fulton after the verdict.

"This shows that the system works. My family and I still have a lot of healing to do, but I'm happy in knowing that today I got justice," he said.

The verdict came after Mr. Fulton's attorneys, Kenneth L. Thompson and Mark Stichel, blasted the state prosecutor's decision to single out Mr. Fulton.

"We've wasted four days in court talking about a lot of nonsense," Mr. Thompson said in closing arguments. "This whole case is absurd. . . . It's been a disgrace.

"You don't ruin a man's life over nonsense like this. This is a decent man."

As a result of a special grand jury investigation, state prosecutors had charged the 40-year-old Baltimore Democrat with six criminal violations stemming from activities during his 1990 re-election bid.

The alleged wrongdoings included using campaign money for the purchase of two new campaign vans registered in Mr. Fulton's name and the theft of $3,000 from his campaign treasury.

The prosecutors, Dolores O. Ridgell and Scott E. Nevin, also had argued that Mr. Fulton paid campaign workers with money that he declared was being used for legislative purposes.

They also alleged that he used more legislative money -- about $2,000 -- to pay for the installation of campaign phones and to pay the rent for his campaign headquarters.

But in the course of the trial, the charges against Mr. Fulton were whittled down to three criminal counts as Judge Ellen M. Heller remained unswayed by the prosecution's case.

By the time the case went to the jury yesterday afternoon, Mr. Fulton stood accused only of stealing $650 from the campaign treasury and stealing another $525 by paying his campaign manager with legislative funds.

In dropping some of the counts, Judge Heller told the prosecutors that, although "the charges disturb me a great deal," the state had failed to show evidence of any willful wrongdoing by Mr. Fulton.

"I'm in a criminal case with charges against a public official. I need evidence," Judge Heller said.

Mr. Fulton admitted that he took $3,000 from his campaign treasury, but he -- and several of his campaign workers -- testified that Mr. Fulton disbursed the entire amount in legitimate cash bonus gifts to loyal campaign hands.

Charges that Mr. Fulton had illegally used legislative money to pay for rent and a telephone were thrown out yesterday.

Mr. Fulton testified that his campaign headquarters was housed in the same building as his legislative office, and that the rent he charged to the state went solely toward the legislative office. The landlord of the building, Mr. Fulton testified, was a friend who did not charge him rent for the campaign office in the building.

The landlord took the stand to verify Mr. Fulton's story.

And finally, Mr. Fulton said that the legislative money he paid to campaign workers was in fact disbursed for legislative work they performed. The campaign workers in question, he said, were very much involved with constituent work.

But prosecutors said in closing arguments that they did not believe his excuses.

"The state doesn't think it's nonsense when a state delegate" abuses his privileges, Ms. Ridgell said.

"Public officials have to be held to a high degree of responsibility. They are trusted with taxpayer dollars," she said. "Tony Fulton is a thief. . . . Delegate Fulton's conduct shows that he is not worthy" of the public trust.

Mr. Fulton, a real estate agent, was elected to represent Baltimore's 40th District in 1987. During the trial, he testified that prosecutors had a vendetta against him and that at least one of his campaign aides told him of being threatened by a prosecutor.

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