Drawing a bead on corruption

February 26, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer David Michael Ettlin contributed to this article.

He forces people out of public office, sends them to jail, turns their lives into "sheer hell."

And without regret.

"You do things that hurt people, but if they've done something wrong maybe they deserve to be hurt," he says.

Over the 10 years he has been Maryland's state prosecutor, Stephen Montanarelli has looked into activities of public officials at every level of government.

Yesterday, at his urging, a grand jury indicted city Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean on five counts of theft and misconduct in office.

Outside the grand jury room in the half-light of a courthouse corridor, the career prosecutor declined to comment on her indictment.

"I prefer to do my talking later," he said. "It's merely an accusation. Now we have to prove it."

Persuading juries that public officials have strayed is the job of the state prosecutor, an office created by constitutional amendment in 1976 after Maryland was jolted by political scandals. The legislature decided that the state needed an independent prosecutor free of political influence.

Acting on complaints, the 64-year-old Mr. Montanarelli and his staff typically investigate more than 100 cases a year.

Some critics have said that he is too aggressive, others that he is too passive. Some have said his conviction rate is anemic.

He declines to give a score sheet of cases tried and won.

"Most of our cases are very difficult to prove. We're not going against street criminals. Usually, the people we charge have seemed to be very upstanding citizens," he says.

A 1992 bill would have put his office under the attorney general's control. He and his backers deflected the move, calling it political retaliation for his role in the unsuccessful prosecution of former Baltimore County Councilman Gary Huddles.

Some say the prosecutor has undermined his effectiveness at times by taking on too many cases.

"At first, he didn't discipline himself. Some cases that should have been taken by local prosecutors were not, and the office became a dumping ground," says Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's. Mr. Maloney's subcommittee on law enforcement approves Mr. Montanarelli's annual budget of half a million dollars and advises him occasionally.

"People wondered if the guy was suffering from special prosecutor syndrome," Mr. Maloney says. "You get involved in prosecutorial Vietnams. You won't leave the swamp until it's drained."

Mr. Montanarelli says he guards against overlong investigations

PTC and that he accepts the view that his focus needed sharpening.

The cases he has pursued include:

* Allegations of mismanagement of money and of misconduct against Aberdeen Police Chief John R. "Jack" Jolley, whom Mr. ** Montanarelli criticized in a report but did not prosecute.

* An alleged attempt by two men to bribe a Cecil County commissioner in a landfill case. The case is pending.

* Misconduct charges against Talbot County Sheriff John J. Ellerbusch Jr., who was found guilty of stealing $70,000.

* Misconduct charges against former state Del. Sylvania W. Woods of Prince George's County for allegedly scheming to steal money from three cellular telephone companies and his own re-election committee. In a plea bargain, he was placed on probation for five years and ordered to make restitution and to resign.

* An inquiry into unspecified allegations regarding former House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. that ended without charges. Records of that inquiry were sealed by the prosecutor. Mr. Mitchell described the ordeal of that investigation as "sheer hell." There appeared to be no connection between the investigation and his resignation late last year.

Mr. Montanarelli's office has three lawyers including the prosecutor himself, as well as an investigator, an auditor and two administrative personnel. He also has a part-time legal intern and a part-time investigator. His $512,000 budget, including his salary of $89,000, is adequate for the ebb and flow of his work, he says.

"We're either extremely busy or we're waiting for the next big case to happen," he says.

Former U.S. Attorney Richard Bennett says he found the state prosecutor's operation professional and efficient, and Mr. Montanarelli "a pleasure to work with."

Stephen Montanarelli was reared in Utica, N.Y., graduated from Colgate University in 1951, did postgraduate work at Syracuse University and then served in the Air Force.

He moved to the Baltimore area in 1956 and is a 1961 graduate of the University of Maryland Law School. He worked for Martin Marietta Corp., which sent him to Paris to manage a NATO contract.

"It was great duty. I got married over there and had a 3 1/2 -year honeymoon," he says. His wife, Jane, had been a secretary for Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin.

While in Paris, he heard of a job opening in the Baltimore state's attorney's office.

He started work in that office in 1967. "The work was an adventure every day," he says. "You walked into your office and there were literally 25 files on your desk to take to court and prosecute."

He was hooked after his first trial, in which he was asked to retry a rape case that had ended with the jury deadlocked 7-5 for conviction.

"I only had a week to prepare," he recalls. "My wife said I was practicing my opening argument in my sleep. I had never been so enthusiastic. The jury hung again -- but this time it was 8-4," he says.

To him, gaining even one more juror was a victory.

The intensity and atmosphere surrounding a prosecution has continued to appeal to him.

"Just to be in the arena. You're in control of your case. You have the witnesses. You put them on. The whole experience is fascinating."

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