The sting: Undercover state troopers walk into a lawyer's office saying one of them has been in an accident but wasn't injured. If the lawyer encourages them to file a bogus insurance claim, the case is on its way to being made.
Unless it turns out that the trooper had, in fact, been injured in an accident the day before.
That's exactly what happened yesterday when the first case brought to trial in the state's much ballyhooed investigation of insurance fraud unraveled in a Baltimore courtroom.
Prosecutors dropped felony-theft and insurance-fraud charges against veteran Baltimore attorney Nelson R. Kandel when they learned that Cpl. Terri L. Taylor had been involved in at least four traffic accidents, including one the day before she took part in the sting.
The turn of events three days into the trial raises questions about the future of the attorney general's 18-month-old probe of false automobile insurance accident claims.
Corporal Taylor, assigned to the attorney general's office since 1990 to investigate white-collar crime, is a participant in at least one other undercover operation. That case is the only other one to lead to charges thus far.
Christopher J. Romano, deputy chief of the Criminal Investigations Division of the attorney general's office, refused to answer questions about the effect of yesterday's events on the investigation. He would not elaborate on a brief, somewhat vague statement given in court to explain the sudden decision to drop charges against Mr. Kandel.
In court, he said only that information had come to light "impeaching" the credibility of the prosecution's next scheduled witness.
Defense Attorney Arnold M. Weiner said later that the information was medical records he obtained showing that the officer had been hurt in an accident the evening before she walked into Mr. Kandel's office.
Corporal Taylor had been expected to take the stand to say Mr. Kandel referred her, as she posed as "Kerrin Thompson," to a medical clinic for treatment even though she did not claim specific injuries.
State police documents show she was driving an unmarked state police vehicle last Oct. 8 on Interstate 95 in eastern Baltimore County when she was rear-ended by another driver.
"The damage sustained by both vehicles was very minor and Corporal Taylor complained of minor neck pain," stated a state police memorandum dated Oct. 9 -- the day she and Sgt. Floyd Jones first visited Mr. Kandel's office.
Medical records obtained by Mr. Weiner show that Corporal Taylor, 30, had received treatment for neck injuries in connection with a traffic accident in 1987, two more in 1989 and the one in Oct. 1991.
Mr. Kandel, an attorney in the city for more than three decades, says his high-volume personal-injury practice has suffered in the wake of the criminal charges. His lawyers blasted the state police for their handling of the case.
"It was poor police work followed by a cover-up," said Mr. Weiner.
"No competent investigator should have allowed a person to act in an undercover capacity as someone who is not injured when they know the person has just been injured within the last 18 hours and no investigator, competent or not, should conceal the fact of the injury and the accident at the same time
that the undercover person is forming the basis of a criminal case."
Steven A. Allen, another defense lawyer, said, "It puts at issue the credibility of their entire investigation."
Mr. Kandel, 62, of Ruxton said he had been confident about the outcome of the trial before the charges were dropped.
"I was elated by the weakness in their first-day presentation," he said. "I thought Sergeant Jones' credibility was at issue and then the next day, with [Cpl.] Gloria Wilson, who became arrogant on the witness stand and misrepresented or contradicted certain facts Sergeant Jones had testified to, I was feeling really good about the trial."
In his opening statements in the aborted trial, Mr. Weiner told the jury that Mr. Kandel had been targeted by insurance companies helping to steer the state's investigation.
He complained that the government had taken sides in the adversarial relationship between personal-injury lawyers and the insurance companies.
After the charges were dropped yesterday, Mr. Kandel said, "This whole thing is about trying to discredit personal-injury lawyers."