Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. lashed back at his Republican challenger yesterday, calling Paul H. Rappaport's assertion that Curran told state troopers he would not represent them if they were sued by the American Civil Liberties Union "an out-and-out lie."
"He either has zero credibility or he owes me an apology," the three-term incumbent said as the once-quiet attorney general's race became increasingly vitriolic.
Rappaport did back down slightly from his earlier statement that Curran himself threatened to withhold state representation in a ACLU lawsuit charging that the state police and members of a drug interdiction team had used race as a factor in conducting traffic stops and searches.
The former state police major, who ran for lieutenant governor on Ellen R. Sauerbrey's ticket in 1994, continued to maintain that someone in Curran's office told troopers they could not expect state lawyers to defend them if they were sued for stopping a member of a minority group.
"He personally might not have told them but it came through their assistant [attorneys general]," Rappaport said. "It is out of his people, which might as well be out of his own mouth."
Rappaport said he based his charges on conversations with unnamed troopers.
The ACLU alleged in a suit that dates to 1992 that black lTC motorists along Interstate 95 were pulled over and searched in disproportionate numbers because of racial bias. After a 1995 settlement, the ACLU revived the case in 1996 after state police statistics showed that 73 percent of those detained were black.
The Sun reported yesterday that state police officials had confirmed the accuracy of figures provided by Rappaport -- after being passed to him by inside sources -- showing a dramatic decline in the amount of drugs troopers seized along Interstate 95 from 1995 to 1997.
The state police superintendent, Col. David B. Mitchell, said ACLU threats to sue individual officers and the "chilling effect" of extensive publicity about the case were leading reasons for the decline. But Rappaport sought to pin the blame on Curran, claiming that his handling of the case deterred troopers from making traffic stops.
New figures provided by state police yesterday showed that the number of traffic stops during which troopers sought consent to conduct a search declined from 1,430 in 1995 to 1,178 in 1996 and 1,034 in 1997. But statistics for the first three quarters of 1998 show that the number of "consent searches" exceeds the total for 1997 and is on a pace to come close to the 1995 total.
Curran, who said he does not believe the state police harbor a bias against blacks, reiterated yesterday that his office is vigorously representing all troopers.
The attorney general said it was "troubling" that his opponent would raise the racially sensitive issue in the election campaign.
"We're trying to improve race relations and that's what the state police are trying to do. We don't need someone coming in and stirring up a problem by making false statements," Curran said.
Mitchell said some tensions between the attorney general's office and the state police resulted from the ACLU case around 1995 because of differences over legal strategy. But he said he has "every confidence" in the litigator who is now handling the suit.