Jessamy attacks mayor's reforms

Criticisms printed in newsletter paid for with city funds

The Sun also targeted

November 07, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

In a new "community newsletter" published by her office, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy excoriates the mayor in a three-page commentary, claiming he has pushed "failed" reforms and starved her overburdened office of funding.

She also accuses The Sun of inaccurate reporting and unfair editorials about her and her office.

Jessamy says the newsletter is meant to educate city residents about what her office is doing, but some people wonder whether Jessamy, who intends to run for re-election next year, is improperly using public money for political purposes.

The strongly worded commentary is not new: She wrote it in September and has posted it on her office's Web site. She also submitted it as a letter to The Sun, which ran an edited version on its Web site in September.

But the recent newsletter marks the first time Jessamy has circulated the letter - and her side of the City Hall vs. state's attorney's office battle - in print. Jessamy said 28,000 issues were distributed as an insert in the most recent edition of the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, and mailed to churches, community groups, libraries, hospitals, colleges and senior citizens centers.

She said the office spent $5,000 on the publication - using "forfeiture funds," money the city gets from criminals' property, such as drug dealers' cars. "It's not tax dollars," she said.

Nevertheless, Jessamy may have stumbled into an area of state ethics law that prohibits candidates who hold office from using that office for their own political ends.

State law allows government agencies and officials to publish their own newsletters and other informational material. To avoid breaching ethics laws, however, officials running for office must not use "state time, facilities, equipment" or "otherwise misuse their state position" to further their campaigns, according to a State Ethics Commission memorandum.

"It certainly raises a lot of questions about whether this government publication ... has purely informational, and not political, purposes," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a citizens watchdog group.

Although the political content in Jessamy's letter is a matter of interpretation, Browning said he was struck by the sections attacking the mayor. "If it sounds like campaign literature, it probably is," he said.

City Councilwoman Lisa J. Stancil, who plans to run for city state's attorney, said Jessamy has crossed an ethical line.

"This is nothing more than a campaign piece, and she's using public money to pay for it, money that could have been better spent," Stancil said, adding that the letter's content was "a sugarcoat of everything that's wrong with [Jessamy's] office."

The 12-page newsletter was put together by about a dozen employees and includes information about victims' services, domestic violence, drug addiction and housing code violations, among other items.

But Jessamy's letter is its main feature. In it, she says she has been maligned by the mayor and by The Sun, and presents her side of various problems and incidents that have dogged her tenure in office.

"If this was another time and place, I might be tarred and feathered by now," the letter begins. She goes on to promote her "leadership and vision," and defends her decisions regarding evidence handling and to not prosecute a police officer accused of corruption. She also defends her decision to discourage reopening the case of a man serving a life sentence for a murder many court officials believe he did not commit.

Jessamy criticizes the mayor for pouring money into the Police Department while "we have not received one dime from the city for more felony trial attorneys."

And she dismisses his early disposition court project to weed minor cases from the system and free prosecutors for serious felonies, as "a Reaganesque, trickle-down theory of crime fighting."

The mayor declined to comment on the letter this week.

Early in the letter Jessamy acknowledges she's made mistakes:

"I have on occasion appeared defensive, rather than accountable. I have been inartful in my attempts to explain issues and have appeared to blame others, though that was never my intent. One may fairly say that as a politician, I have been clumsy."

But yesterday Jessamy said her letter was a "community education piece" and not politically motivated. "I wasn't thinking political. I was thinking in terms of the office, and responding to criticism," she said.

She decided to start the newsletter, she said, because "we're just not getting out ... all the wonderful programs the office has to offer."

The fall issue is the second office newsletter published during Jessamy's administration. The first, which was four pages long, came out in May. It, too, lists Jessamy's achievements, but its tone is purely bureaucratic.

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