Jessamy newsletter assails mayor's reforms

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.

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

State law allows government agencies and officials to publish their 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.

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 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.

The mayor declined to comment on the letter this week.

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