Grand jurors surprised by Ecker stance Executive rejected recommendations on detention center

'I'm quite disappointed'

Panel suggested review of jail management

March 13, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Frustrated but powerless, members of a Howard County grand jury are dismayed that recommendations they made to improve management at the local jail were flatly rejected by the county's top official.

In the final report of this grand jury -- released Monday -- jurors wrote they were "surprised" that County Executive Charles I. Ecker discarded the recommendations of their interim report released in January and criticized them for doing what they saw as their civic duty.

Charles Croteau, one of the 22 who served on the grand jury during its six-month term that just ended, said the panel did not expect Ecker's response.

Ecker reacted "negatively and quite unnecessarily. I'm quite disappointed," said Croteau, a retired engineer. "The responsibility of a grand jury is to speak up. It's perfectly legal."

In his initial response, Ecker not only criticized the grand jury's actions but also called for the report to be officially erased from all public records -- moves that have left some members of the county's legal and political circles scratching their heads.

Some speculate that Ecker was trying to quash any criticism of his administration as he contemplates a run as the Republican candidate for the governor's mansion.

"There's no readily understandable justification for [Ecker's] reaction," said Columbia attorney James B. Kraft, who is also president of the Columbia Democratic Club. "It looks petty. It looks foolish.

"I think [Ecker] is afraid of any criticism that can be used against him in a governor's race," Kraft said. "He doesn't want the boat rocked right now, and this [report] rocks the boat."

Ecker did not return repeated phone calls yesterday.

The controversy began with the interim report's call for the creation of an independent oversight panel to review jail management procedures.

Citing the need to avert problems at the beleaguered Jessup facility, the grand jury wrote that "necessary corrective actions" should be taken to "prevent future problems associated with the handling of prisoners, the improvement of officer morale and the strengthening of management procedures."

A copy of the report was sent to Ecker and, in February, he responded by blasting the grand jury, -- not the jail. In a letter given to the grand jury, Ecker said that the panel had overstepped its authority and alleged that the state's attorney's office broke county law in its handling of the report.

In issuing its final report, the grand jury did not back off its original call for an independent oversight panel. Instead, the jury wrote that its intent had been misinterpreted by Ecker.

"The interim report was designed to make recommendations to hopefully help eliminate future and potential problems that may arise at the detention center," the report says.

The jury's final report adds: "The grand jury requests that [the report] be reviewed in the spirit of how it was offered, as recommendations for improvement of conditions at the detention center that would be in the best interest of all concerned."

In February, Ecker argued that the grand jury, by law, has only the power to investigate the management of state prisons, not county jails.

That theory was disputed by the Howard state's attorney's office and an independent legal expert contacted by The Sun. Deputy State's Attorney Les Gross -- second in command at the office -- maintained that not only are grand juries allowed to look into local jails but they are required to do so by law.

No action has been taken on Ecker's request to expunge the grand jury report.

James N. "Buck" Rollins, the jail director, interviewed yesterday, said he could not comment on Ecker's reaction to the report. But he said he told Ecker that some of the issues the grand jury raised were being addressed at the jail -- such as better handling of incident reports and other paperwork.

"Had [the grand jury] investigated further, there may not have been the need for the report," Rollins said.

For more than a year, the Jessup facility has had problems. Those problems have led to criminal indictments by the grand jury of two officers on charges that they beat handcuffed inmates and the dismissal of two other jail officers for having sexual relations with an inmate.

The two indicted jail officers -- Capt. Thomas V. Kimball and Officer Donald J. Pryor -- are awaiting trial on assault and battery charges in Howard Circuit Court.

The grand jury heard lengthy testimony about the jail when it was investigating the alleged beatings of the inmates by the guards.

After hearing the testimony, the grand jury recommended that a panel review the jail's hiring practices, handling of officer grievances and internally generated incident reports.

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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