Wherever You Look, Sex Abuse Charges

COMMENT

July 16, 1995|By MIKE BURNS

The last time we saw assault charges involving politicians in Harford County, Ruth Elliott and DeWayne Curry were tossing those allegations (as well as candy wrappers) at one other as a result of a closed meeting of the Aberdeen City Council.

(Another reason for cutting down on the frequent closed sessions of that body, we might add, but that's a different issue.)

There was admittedly political bad blood between the two, in fact between Mayor Elliott and most of the council. The assault charges and countercharges were merely a legal sideshow, actions that were dropped as the battle of those political forces moved to the election box. Mrs. Elliott was ultimately defeated for re-election and Mr. Curry won a second term on the council.

The political repercussions of the charges recently brought against Harford County Councilman Mark S. Decker are more unclear, the circumstances seemingly more serious than those of the Aberdeen fracas. Charges were placed by a special prosecutor brought in from Baltimore County after a three-month inquiry by the Harford County sheriff's office and state's attorney.

The complainant, a former county courthouse custodian, alleges that the councilman grabbed her and touched her breast in the hallway of the courthouse Feb. 7. Mr. Decker denies the charges, explaining that he touched her arm to inspect a shoulder patch on her white smock, which was not a part of the normal custodian's uniform.

This alleged touching of the female breast in the incident resulted in charges of battery and a fourth-degree sexual offense: unwanted touching of an intimate nature.

Had the accused done the same thing to a male, it would have been a case of simple assault and battery.

Because the charge involves an alleged sexual criminal offense, this newspaper declined to publish the name, age or legal residence of the complainant, citing its long-standing policy. The name of the defendant, however, appeared as the lead headline in this section, along with his photograph.

The woman, who is now said to be employed as a nurse in Baltimore County, initially declined to press the complaint. County officials tried to treat the incident as a personnel matter, confronting Mr. Decker with the allegations (which he denied) and securing his agreement to stay away from the employee. She then filed a complaint with the sheriff, ultimately resulting in the matter being referred to the Baltimore County state's attorney because of a possible conflict of interest involving Mr. Decker's position as a county official.

After his own investigation, an assistant state's attorney for Baltimore County filed a criminal charge against Mr. Decker, a first-term county councilman and Bel Air businessman. Stephen Roscher, the attorney, said there were justifiable reasons for the woman's vacillation in filing a complaint, but he would not disclose them. The woman has declined to comment publicly.

Joseph Cassilly, the Harford state's attorney who declined to prosecute the matter and will not have to deal with the consequences, opined that the woman decided to file a criminal complaint because county officials did not properly investigate her allegations.

There are reports that this was not the first unwanted encounter between Mr. Decker and his accuser. Mr. Decker says he took and passed a privately administered lie-detector test on the woman's charges.

Without passing judgment on this particular case, with so little public disclosure, we can observe that sexual harassment/battery/discrimination cases appear to be cropping up with increasing frequency in the public arena. Inclusion of that provocative term "sexual" seems to ascribe a greater significance to the charges than if they were unadorned, conjuring up prurient images that may be far from the facts or the charges.

Take the case of William L. Lamphere, the Havre de Grace police chief whom Mayor Gunther Hirsch is trying to suspend. When the city moved to suspend him last month for undisclosed infractions, Chief Lamphere balked at the idea and went to court for an injunction. That produced the information leak that his alleged transgressions involved "sexual" discrimination.

Whether the mayor can suspend the chief without bringing formal charges to the city council is still being argued in court. Meanwhile, the cloud of "sexual" violations hangs over the head of Chief Lamphere, the department head for six years.

Recall the case of John R. Jolley, the former Aberdeen police chief. When he was under heavy fire for financial and department mismanagement, he was sued for sexual harassment by his secretary. It seemed no small coincidence that part of the chief's difficulties stemmed from his assigning the secretary to do police officer work, an assignment that could have gotten her into legal trouble.

The lawsuit was dismissed in November by a judge, who found that the secretary had willingly participated in the provocative banter that was the basis for her complaint. But Chief Jolley resigned soon thereafter.

There's no attempt here to equate the circumstances of these disparate cases. But there is a concern that the "sexual" adjective is readily brandished in legal charges these days, making them appear more egregious offenses than they would be under common law. There surely are definite sexual offenses. We trust the judicial and government systems will strive to make the proper distinction.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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