Charges make attorney general race far from dull CAMPAIGN 1994

October 20, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

Memo to Marylanders who expected the race for attorney general to be an arcane legal debate: It's not.

It's a contest filled with juicy accusations of political hanky-panky and, yes, even illegal activities.

The bulk of the charges are coming from the Republican bunker of Richard D. Bennett. He has accused Democratic incumbent J. Joseph Curran Jr. of breaking the law (by failing to file a routine report) and misusing taxpayer money (by taking a state bodyguard to political events).

He has even blamed Mr. Curran for the prison system's early release of John Frederick Thanos, who subsequently murdered three teen-agers.

The charges are intriguing but, according to Mr. Curran, they also are unfair.

"Mr. Bennett has been making statements each week that are -- especially in the case about Thanos -- absolutely false," Mr. Curran said. "It's a desperate attempt by someone who is losing the election to make statements that are very silly and false."

Still, the charges could be giving Mr. Bennett a boost.

A new poll by Mason-Dixon Political Media Research shows the challenger chipping away at Mr. Curran's lead. The survey found Mr. Curran has 45 percent of the support, down 2 points from last month, while Mr. Bennett has risen 5 points to 32 percent.

The telephone poll, conducted for The Sun and other news organizations, surveyed 826 regular voters statewide last Thursday through Saturday. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Mr. Bennett's campaign strategy is risky, said Mason-Dixon's vice president, Del Ali.

"When you deal with ethics you have to be very careful. You have to have solid evidence," Mr. Ali said. "If Bennett is going to go negative, he's got to focus on real improprieties."

That's especially true because Mr. Curran has a long-standing reputation for integrity, he noted. "If Bennett tries to make it a referendum on Joe Curran's character [without proof], that's good news for Joe because Bennett would get squashed."

Mr. Curran is seeking a third term as the state's top lawyer. As such, he is responsible for giving legal advice to state government and handling criminal appeals.

The job does not involve much front-line prosecution, but Mr. Bennett, a former federal prosecutor, is trying to make the race a referendum on crime.

He recently accused Mr. Curran of "recommending" a policy change that led to the early release of prisoner Thanos in 1990. Thanos was executed this year for the murders he committed after his release.

Mr. Curran noted he has no power over prison policy, which is handled by a separate agency that reports to the governor.

His job, he said, is to interpret state laws affecting prisoners as enacted by the legislature. He wrote one such opinion in 1990 in the wake of a lawsuit. Prison officials used the opinion to form a policy that made it easier for some inmates to be freed earlier. A prison employee, however, misapplied the policy to release Thanos, a mistake that cost the employee his job.

Mr. Curran chastised his opponent for using this "tragedy" for political gain.

When pressed on his claim, Mr. Bennett said, "I'm not saying I lay the deaths of these three teen-agers at the feet of Joe Curran. John Thanos could have been released five years later and gone on a crime spree."

He said he brought up the Thanos case because it reveals Mr. Curran as a weak crime fighter.

Mr. Bennett also has accused Mr. Curran of failing to file an annual report on the operations of his office as required. The failure is just one more indication that Curran has been "asleep at the switch," Mr. Bennett said, repeating a favorite slogan.

Mr. Curran offers this explanation: Amid state budget cuts, his office did not have the money to print bound volumes of the report. Instead, Mr. Curran said, he has reported on his office's budget and operations in public appearances before state legislative committees every year.

His latest allegation is that Mr. Curran has misused his state-provided car and driver to attend political events around Maryland. Mr. Bennett said Mr. Curran should limit his use of the bodyguard and black Ford to official duties.

Mr. Curran admits going to political events with his bodyguard, but said he is only following orders from the state police. Police policy is to protect the attorney general and other state officials from the time they leave for work until they return home at night, according to Mr. Curran and a state police commander.

If Mr. Curran were really concerned about protection, Mr. Bennett asked, why does he sometimes walk several blocks by himself while the trooper waits in the car?

Mr. Curran said he sometimes walks a block to an event if he feels safe, which is not always the case.

The Curran campaign returned a few of the volleys this week by pointing out weaknesses in Mr. Bennett's record. When Mr. Bennett was U.S. attorney for Maryland, his federal office filed fewer criminal cases than either his predecessor or successor, said Curran campaign spokesman Martin O'Malley.

And while Mr. Bennett says he supports the death penalty, he never sought that punishment while U.S. attorney, Mr. Curran said.

Mr. Bennett said he filed fewer cases because he consolidated some smaller cases into larger ones. He said he didn't seek the death penalty because no one gave him a case where he felt it was appropriate.

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