Ehrlich seeks U.S. focus on gun crimes

Townsend angry at timing of his letter to DiBiagio

Election 2002

August 01, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

After months of holding his tongue, Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called on Maryland's U.S. attorney yesterday to increase federal prosecutions of gun crimes as a way to curb deadly street violence in Baltimore.

Ehrlich, the 2nd District congressman and expected GOP nominee for governor, asked U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio to launch a 180-day period -- beginning today -- during which federal prosecutors would focus intensely on firearm violations.

"Given the strains on the city's law enforcement and judicial institutions, I believe the crisis of gun violence can be reversed only with an aggressive deployment of every tool at our disposal, including the expanded use of federal prosecution," Ehrlich said in a letter to DiBiagio.

The letter, dated Tuesday and released yesterday, comes after weeks filled with city shootings and homicides.

Ehrlich repeatedly pressed former U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, who served under President Bill Clinton, to take similar steps. But the Baltimore County congressman had said little on the topic since DiBiagio, a personal friend, was sworn in last year after Ehrlich recommended him to President Bush.

The new prosecutor was widely expected to follow Ehrlich's call for more gun-toting criminals to face the stiffer penalties of the federal court system. But DiBiagio instead split with his political benefactor and said he would pursue firearm cases in federal court only when defendants face a potentially longer sentence than they would in state court.

DiBiagio has acknowledged that that would mean fewer federal gun cases, and he has repeatedly rejected suggestions that political pressure could change his policies. He did not return phone calls yesterday. A spokeswoman said his office has no comment on Ehrlich's letter.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was angry at Ehrlich's letter, suggesting it was timed to create distance between Ehrlich -- her likely challenger in this fall's governor's race -- and the federal prosecutor amid reports that DiBiagio's office is investigating crime-control grants issued by the state to nonprofit organizations in Prince George's County.

"I think he's playing politics with children's lives and with what's going on in our city," Townsend said. "It comes the same day that DiBiagio is doing an inquiry into the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention. I think that's an unbelievable coincidence, and I think it's garbage politics."

Ehrlich said the two events were unrelated. He said his letter to DiBiagio was mailed Tuesday, a day before the federal grand jury probe was made public, and was prompted only by the city's crime wave.

"There's a murder spree going on," Ehrlich said. In his letter, he pointed out that 24 people were killed in Baltimore in a recent 25-day period.

Ehrlich said he has not talked to DiBiagio since the prosecutor's swearing-in, during which DiBiagio thanked Ehrlich for his support. Ehrlich said yesterday that it would be inappropriate for him to dictate how the U.S. attorney's office is run.

DiBiagio has not escaped criticism about his gun-crime policies. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has repeatedly called for the U.S. attorney to increase federal firearm prosecutions to help fight city violence.

In recent months, the mayor also has questioned why Ehrlich had not been a more vocal critic of DiBiagio's priorities. In an interview yesterday, O'Malley called the congressman's request "better late than never."

O'Malley said that as of June 30, statistics compiled by the state's attorney's office showed that federal prosecutors had agreed to take 47 city gun cases into federal court, compared with 70 similar cases during the same period last year.

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