State's Attorney's Petty Vendetta

March 02, 1994

Only Carroll County State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman knows why he felt compelled last week to announce that he was "watching" Commissioner Julia W. Gouge's handling of the dirt pile on her Hampstead farm, and then to announce a few days later he had "ended" his investigation. While Mrs. Gouge made some inappropriate remarks to the county grading inspectors who called the sediment problem to her attention, there was never any suggestion by officials that Mrs. Gouge said or did anything that could be construed as remotely criminal.

Mrs. Gouge made a mistake by calling the county inspectors on the carpet and attempting to intimidate them. We criticized her for that. However, it is important to separate inappropriate from criminal behavior. If Mr. Hickman had bothered to examine the file on Mrs. Gouge's property, he would have read about an elected official who acted arrogantly; that is all. What makes this incident so surprising is that when prosecutors undertake criminal investigations of elected officials, they usually go to great lengths to avoid disclosing their actions.

Mr. Hickman appears to be conducting a campaign of innuendo to get back at Mrs. Gouge for her pointed comments last year about the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force, which Mr. Hickman supervises. Mrs. Gouge was angry that members of the task force had resisted a financial audit for months and were uncooperative after finally agreeing to one. She also expressed reservations about the task force's program of seizing valuables and then negotiating their return to people accused of a crime.

Mrs. Gouge raised legitimate issues about the task force's conduct and, by inference, about the quality of Mr. Hickman's supervision. We happen to think that Mrs. Gouge was right to raise them, particularly because the task force is a police organization that has avoided any oversight by the county's top elected officials.

On the other hand, federal officials have said that Mrs. Gouge's wetlands violation is the equivalent of a "speeding ticket." For the county's top prosecutor to get so involved in such a case at this stage indicates that Mr. Hickman has an unhealthy preoccupation with trying to settle political slights. We suspect that most of Carroll's residents will see Mr. Hickman's vendetta for what it is.

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