Anderson's conviction possessed him till the end

July 30, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When you looked into Dale Anderson's eyes, his obsessions glared back: the time he'd spent behind prison bars, the jailbird's insistence he'd never done anything wrong, the old politician's earnest promise that every act he'd committed as Baltimore County executive was strictly "for the people."

Others in that crowded 1970s era of political corruption licked their wounds and admitted their guilt and got on with their lives. There was Joe Alton, the Anne Arundel County executive who pleaded guilty to taking money and then went off to Allenwood federal prison in Pennsylvania without a public murmur of malice. When he came out after several months, he described the experience as "interesting and educational."

By then, Anderson had followed Alton into Allenwood. When he saw Alton's description of the joint, he fired off a note from prison. "Dear Joe," it said. "You were in the wrong institution all along."

He never quit insisting he'd done nothing wrong, until the time of his fatal heart attack last weekend, at 79, at his home on Kent Island.

He was the man who might have been king of Maryland politics, until that afternoon of March 20, 1974, at the old federal courthouse on Calvert Street, where a jury exhausted by 11 weeks of complex, tedious testimony took just six hours to find him guilty of 32 counts of extorting kickbacks, of tax evasion, of conspiracy. Anderson marched out of court declaring innocence and vowing he'd be vindicated on appeal. But his limitless political future dried up in that instant, and his rage seemed barely contained.

In a dim hallway outside court moments after his conviction, Anderson and his family waited for an elevator as reporters closed around him. But all elevators were stalled at other floors. Questions were shouted at him, rapid-fire and loud enough to echo down the long corridors, and Anderson stood there in his fury and his humiliation, and waited and waited, and must have felt like a man trapped in hell.

Finally, on the elevator, there was a moment's privacy -- almost. Anderson leaned against one wall, and his family crowded in, and so did I, trying to look like a citizen. Eyes blazing, Anderson tried unsuccessfully to compose himself.

"I'm gonna be all right," he kept saying. "I'm gonna be all right," attempting to convince himself as much as any of the others. Then, when the elevator doors opened and he walked outside where more reporters and TV cameras waited, the venom flowed.

"I'm not guilty," he insisted, "and I'm not gonna let these bastards destroy me. I'm gonna beat them back to their goddamned socks."

He never did let the conviction destroy him, but it surely accompanied him through many raw nights. He spent 13 months behind bars, and emerged trying to hustle a manuscript claiming he'd been framed, blaming political enemies, blaming a runaway prosecutor's office, blaming a jury that never understood the charges. Nobody would touch the manuscript. It reeked of libel and innuendo and bile.

For the last 22 years of his life, he never stopped claiming his innocence, and he was tough enough, and fiery enough, that few would openly challenge his perceptions. How tough was he? When Anderson and his family walked away from the courthouse on the day of his conviction, heading north up Calvert Street, and reporters started to follow him, he turned and roared, "Now, stay away from us, dammit." And everybody froze in their tracks.

He would hate being remembered for this singular episode in his life. He was a working-class conservative who presided over an era of big growth in his county, who controlled thousands of patronage jobs, and who saw suburbia as the golden future -- for some people.

In those early '70s, white people were fleeing the city, and blacks found themselves not exactly welcome to join them in Baltimore County. Sometimes the language was coded: low-income housing, for example. Anderson wouldn't hear of it on his turf. It's a quarter-century later, and we still hear the echoes of such racial edginess.

Fourteen years ago, he ran for the House of Delegates without apologies. A softer man might never have attempted such a run. Anderson's platform boiled down to five words: "I was not a crook."

As the campaign shifted into gear, he sat in his ranch-style home off Belair Road one afternoon and declared, "The people of Baltimore County know I got the shaft. I know in my heart I'm not guilty. I'm the only man on earth who knows absolutely he's not guilty. These prosecutors gave immunity to 15 felons. They gave guarantees of no conviction to two others. They gave...."

His voice droned on. It was nearly a decade after his conviction, but the fires still burned. Maybe people did understand; they elected him to one term in the legislature, but not a second.

But he was a powerful man in his day, who could easily have become governor, or U.S. senator, or who knows what else? He wondered about it more than anyone. It was his obsession, and it gripped him until the end.

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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