Ehrlich reloads ATF debate

He asks Justice Dept. to overrule Md. on who can screen gun cases

`Plain wrong'

June 30, 2000|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Escalating a running feud over gun-crime prosecutions, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is asking the Justice Department to overrule a decision by Maryland's top federal prosecutor to exclude agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from screening cases.

In a sharply worded letter to the department, Ehrlich said it is "plainly wrong" for U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia to block the nation's gun police from reviewing which state gun cases should be tried in federal court, where violators can face harsher penalties.

Battaglia told ATF officials this month that prosecutors in her office could more efficiently determine which cases should be tried under the growing Project Disarm program, designed to put felons caught carrying guns in prison.

In his letter, dated Tuesday, Ehrlich charged that Battaglia cut ATF agents out of the screening process as retaliation after the bureau's local office provided the congressman with statistics that Battaglia thought underrepresented the program's success.

"I harbor no dispute with the U.S. attorney, and sure want none," Ehrlich wrote to Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder. But, he continued, "it appears that the U.S. attorney `punished' ATF for providing truthful statistical information to me, plain and simple."

Battaglia was out of town yesterday and unavailable for comment, but her top assistant said Ehrlich's assertion is untrue.

"Our motivation for changing the process is about getting the files over here more quickly to the attorneys who have to make the judgment," First Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Schenning said.

Ehrlich's letter is the latest flap between the Republican congressman and the Clinton-appointed prosecutor over the role the federal court system should play in cracking down on gun crimes and helping reduce Baltimore's homicide rate.

Under Battaglia, Maryland's U.S. attorney's office has implemented Project Disarm, the aggressive federal program designed to get long prison terms for repeat offenders caught carrying guns. The program is similar to federal programs in at least 35 other cities.

The Baltimore program started in 1994 and has steadily increased its caseload. Last year, 100 people were indicted under the program, 70 percent more than in the previous year. The average sentence for those convicted was slightly more than seven years in the federal prison system. This year, Battaglia's office expects to handle more than 200 cases.

Critics - notably Ehrlich, a third-term congressman from Baltimore and Harford counties' 2nd District - point to the city's high homicide rate and say the federal courts could be doing more. Ehrlich has praised the success of a slightly different federal program, Project Exile, which has been credited with reducing the homicide rate in Richmond, Va.

The latest salvo came with Ehrlich's three-page letter to Holder, second in command at the Justice Department. It was unclear yesterday what action, if any, Holder might take. Ehrlich said he had not received a response. Justice Department officials did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for the ATF's field office in Baltimore said the letter raises valid concerns.

"Last time I checked, we were the federal agency authorized to investigate federal firearm violations," ATF Special Agent Mike Campbell said.

Schenning said ATF agents still are closely involved in gun-crime prosecutions but that it is more efficient for prosecutors to review city firearm arrest reports because it is the lawyers who ultimately decide which cases to try in federal court.

Battaglia started using attorneys from her office instead of ATF agents to screen potential gun cases on June 5. She informed Larry D. Stewart, special agent in charge of ATF's Baltimore office, of the change in a June 2 letter. "Coordinated, direct review by the prosecutors who handle these cases will result in speedier, more reliable and more efficient review of all city firearm cases," she wrote.

In going to Holder, Ehrlich is taking the unusual step of asking Battaglia's bosses at the Justice Department to reverse her decision. In an interview, he said he did not consider the request to be extraordinary.

"Actually, it seemed logical to us to go to the next step up," Ehrlich said.

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