Political stakes were high in St. Mary's gaming probe

February 14, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

Former Deputy State's Attorney Richard Fritz recalls the day last June when politics, St. Mary's County style, knocked on his office door.

It was trouble, and Mr. Fritz knew it.

Two sheriff's department officers walked into Mr. Fritz's office looking for help from the prosecutor, who in his 12 years with the state's attorney had developed a reputation for hard work and aggressive pursuit of narcotics offenders.

That informal meeting has already triggered, in order, a botched state police investigation of an illicit gambling operation, a $1.5 million libel suit by the sheriff and a county commissioner, and Mr. Fritz's resignation.

The officers told Mr. Fritz they had received a tip about an illegal gambling room in St. Mary's County. The trouble was, the information had the potential to implicate some elected county officials. Because they were county officers themselves, they felt they could not pursue the investigation.

"At that point in time, the question is, 'What do we do about it?' " said Mr. Fritz.

It only seems a simple question.

It proved fraught with complications in a rural county where politics is often practiced among old families and long-standing allies.

After meeting with the officers, Mr. Fritz summoned one of his most reliable drug informants to check out the alleged gambling room, in a boarded-up, cinder-block building next to a liquor store on Route 235 in Lexington Park. The informant, said Mr. Fritz, "never lied" before. "I have no reason to doubt anything he ++ ever would say."

The informant confirmed that a card game was going on in the room and that "certain public officials" were gambling there. Hearing this, Mr. Fritz decided to call upon state police investigators in Pikesville. He also decided not to tell any local law enforcement officials about it, including his boss, State's Attorney Walter Dorsey, and asked the state police to observe the same secrecy.

"I was very much concerned that the information would leak" to potential targets of the investigation, said Mr. Fritz. "I ask myself the question: 'Do I tell my boss?' Obviously not."

Mr. Dorsey said he didn't learn about the investigation until he read about it in the weekly newspaper, St. Marys Today, which reported in November that a state police undercover officer had blown his cover by asking too many questions during the card game.

The newspaper also reported that Sheriff Wayne L. Pettit and County Commissioner Edward Bailey had been regular players. Mr. Pettit and Mr. Bailey have filed a $1.5 million libel suit against the newspaper, denying all published allegations.

Mr. Fritz confirmed that the state police investigator tipped his hand by pushing for information too quickly. The gambling room has apparently shut down, Mr. Fritz said. He declined to name the public officials identified by his informant.

State police Capt. Guy Guyton, head of the agency's criminal investigations division, has said he can neither confirm nor deny that a gambling investigation was ever conducted at the building on Route 235 in Lexington Park.

Mr. Fritz, 46, who just opened a private law practice in Leonardtown, resigned his $53,000-a-year state position late last month, a decision that he said he pondered for "about 30 seconds." He quit after Mr. Dorsey told him he would have to stop working side-by-side with sheriff's officers on narcotics investigations -- as he has done for years -- and supervise these cases from the office.

For Mr. Fritz, who has tentative plans to run for Mr. Dorsey's job in 1994, Mr. Dorsey's instructions smacked of politics. He wondered if Mr. Dorsey, scion of an old county political family and an ally of Sheriff Pettit, was annoyed that Mr. Fritz was making waves.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Dorsey denied that his order to Mr. Fritz had anything to do with the gambling room investigation, or with any particular officials. He did acknowledge, however, that he was peeved with Mr. Fritz for going over his head to request the state police probe.

"I told him he would not go out in the field and play policeman" said Mr. Dorsey, adding that Mr. Fritz had for years been "dressing up as an undercover police officer, hiding behind trees and staying up until 3 o'clock in the morning."

"Mr. Fritz is not a trained police officer," Mr. Dorsey said, and his place is in the office, not on the street.

The whole episode reminded Mr. Fritz of the aftermath of the 1990 Democratic primary, in which he supported Mr. Pettit's unsuccessful opponent, sheriff's department Sgt. Donald Purdy.

After that election, Mr. Fritz was ordered by the sheriff's office to sever his connection with narcotics investigations. He was even barred from riding in sheriff's patrol cars.

That order "didn't come from me," said Mr. Pettit. "I don't know, really, what he's talking about."

About a year later, Mr. Fritz was allowed to resume working on the street with county narcotics officers. This time, however, he won't be back. "If they don't care about the people of St. Mary's County, then I don't want to work for them," said Mr. Fritz.

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