Scandals place Md. prosecutor in spotlight Tripp, Young cases reap praise, criticism for Montanarelli

July 09, 1998|By William F. Zorzi Jr. and Greg Garland | William F. Zorzi Jr. and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Since Stephen Montanarelli became Maryland's state prosecutor in 1984, he has investigated hundreds of cases, but none of them as high profile as two this year: the probes of Linda R. Tripp and former Sen. Larry Young.

The two cases have put an unusually bright spotlight on the office, which was created as an independent prosecutorial force to deal with public corruption, election law violations and, as with the Tripp matter, cases referred by other prosecutors.

The glare has gotten so bright that Montanarelli took the rare tack this week of declining to come to the phone to be interviewed, apparently fearing questions about the Tripp case.

"He doesn't want this investigation to be run by the media," said Gavin M. Patashnick, a law clerk who said he was speaking on Montanarelli's behalf.

Though the office has historically been seen as under-funded and understaffed, Montanarelli has investigated scores of allegations against public officials accused of breaking the law.

Perhaps the highest-profile case was the 1994 prosecution of former Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean for planning to steal more than $25,000 in taxpayer funds.

Many of his cases have been against small town or local elected officials around the state. Two years ago, he successfully prosecuted Pimlico racetrack owner Joseph A. De Francis for making illegal contributions to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's 1994 campaign.

George Beall, a Republican and former U.S. attorney, said he has found over the years that Montanarelli's office "has performed remarkably well, given the handicaps of understaffing, under-funding and under-empowerment."

The office this year has a budget of $715,883 and a staff of nine permanent employees and two legal interns.

As for Montanarelli, Beall said,"I've always found him a forceful but reasonable person to deal with."

Acting on complaints, Montanarelli and his staff typically investigate more than 100 complaints a year, the office has said in the past. Many are not substantiated and never publicized.

Some critics have said that he is too aggressive, others that he is too passive. Some have said his conviction rate is anemic. Montanarelli, for his part, has declined to give a score sheet of cases tried and won. The office does not keep such statistics, Patashnick said.

The state prosecutor's office was created in the mid-1970s amid series of public corruption scandals in Maryland -- at a time when federal prosecutors took the lead in investigating such officials as Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who had been Baltimore County executive and Maryland governor.

Beall, who prosecuted those cases, recalled that questions were raised about why existing state investigative agencies had not uncovered the scandals.

The response, ultimately, was that the General Assembly created the state prosecutor's office to deal with allegations of .. public corruption, an agency independent of the state attorney general's office and local prosecutors.

Gerald D. Glass, a former Baltimore deputy state's attorney, held the post until Montanarelli was appointed 14 years ago.

Montanarelli, 69, was reared in Utica, N.Y., graduated from Colgate University in 1951, did postgraduate work at Syracuse University and then served in the Air Force. He moved to the Baltimore area in 1956 and is a 1961 graduate of the University of Maryland Law School.

He worked as a prosecutor in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Republicans critical

This week, he has come under increasingly strong criticism by Tripp, her lawyers and some Republicans after he announced that he had asked a Howard County grand jury to investigate whether Tripp violated the state's wiretap law by secretly tape-recording conversations with her friend Monica Lewinsky.

Just yesterday, the Republican National Committee put out a statement calling his investigation "a political vendetta" designed to "distract the public from the Clinton scandals."

His office has repeatedly rejected those charges. Patashnick said the office had to investigate Tripp's alleged illegal taping since the matter had been referred there by Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon.

Limited legal powers

In the Young case, Montanarelli is investigating whether the Baltimore Democrat used his Senate office for personal gain. Young was expelled from the Senate for ethics violations in January.

House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican, said he always believed Montanarelli was nonpartisan. He was surprised and disappointed, he said, with the prosecutor's decision this week to investigate Tripp.

"He got pushed pretty hard on this by the Democrats," Kittleman said.

He said he otherwise has felt that Montanarelli has done a good job with limited legal powers, noting that the state prosecutor cannot subpoena, grant immunity to witnesses or impanel a grand jury without the approval of an elected prosecutor or the attorney general.

"He's had a problem in that he hasn't had any tools to do his job," Kittleman said.

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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