Going after the politicians

The U.S. attorney's office has played an instrumental role in Maryland politics -- and still does today.

August 18, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

A Maryland United States attorney is involved in a sensitive investigation of a leading politician. The story makes it to the media. The subject denounces the probe as politically motivated. A deadline looms. Political pressure mounts.

If that sounds as if it's ripped from today's headlines about U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio's investigation of the crime-fighting office headed by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, think again. It's actually a piece of almost-30-year-old history. The U.S. attorney was George Beall. The subject of his investigation was the vice president of the United States - Spiro T. Agnew.

In the current case, DiBiagio's office has subpoenaed extensive records of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, apparently looking for misspent federal grant money in the operation nominally run by Townsend. As political investigations in Maryland go, this appears to be very far down the scandal scale, no matter what it turns up. Indeed, most observers agree that Townsend's biggest misstep so far has been to call the investigation "political garbage."

Thus she managed to put herself in the same light as numerous public figures who have been investigated by the Maryland U.S. attorney's office down through the years, including Agnew. It is easy for those under investigation to dismiss the matter as politics because U.S. attorneys are, by nature, political creatures whose job is a political appointment made by the party that holds the White House. So people don't get picked for the post unless they carry some political baggage. But in Maryland, most agree there is a long tradition of leaving that baggage at the door when you walk into the office.

"The position is very politically charged," says Jose F. Anderson, who teaches criminal law at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "It is hard to avoid discussions about the subject because politics is involved in decisions. But by and large, going back, Maryland U.S. attorneys from both parties have walked the tightrope rather scrupulously."

In discussions with several former Maryland U.S. attorneys, it was clear that they feel a close kinship with all who have held the office, no matter from which political party, including DiBiagio.

"In Maryland, we have a great tradition in the U.S. attorney's office and there is no reason to believe that this U.S. attorney is not up to those standards," said a Democrat who once held the office who requested anonymity.

"Politically-charged cases come with the territory, whether you are looking for them or not," says Stephen H. Sachs, a Democrat who held the post in the late 1960s and went after his share of politicians. "The important thing is not to flinch, to go where the evidence takes you, and, for those so inclined, to pray."

Beall succeeded Sachs in the office. While conducting an investigation of payoffs to the county executive of Baltimore County, he learned of illicit money going to Agnew, who once held the county executive's post and was then vice president.

"It is very precarious, awkward and challenging for a federal prosecutor to be in a politically sensitive investigation, and that's probably an understatement," says Beall, whose office went after Democrats, convicting Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson - Agnew's elected successor - and beginning the investigation of Gov. Marvin Mandel, as well as Republicans such as Agnew and Anne Arundel County Executive Joseph H. Alton Jr.

The Agnew investigation had its own political dynamics. The deadline that pushed the investigation was not a looming election but the fact that the president, Richard M. Nixon, was facing legal scrutiny in the Watergate affair. To have his potential replacement under a legal cloud seemed more than the country could bear.

In the current investigation, the political divisions are clear: Townsend is a Democrat and DiBiagio a Republican who got the job with the strong backing of Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Townsend's likely opponent in the gubernatorial race.

Three decades ago, Beall and Agnew were both Republicans, but that did not squelch the charge of political favoritism because Beall was not Agnew's choice for the U.S. attorney's job. He had been picked by what had been the usual path for such patronage, through the recommendation of the senior Republican senator, Charles "Mac" Mathias. Agnew objected, asserting that a vice president trumped a senator in the patronage game. A deal was worked out, Beall got the job but Agnew said the investigation was motivated by lingering bitterness.

Beall first heard of the possibility of payoffs to Agnew in the spring of 1973. All remained secret until August when the Wall Street Journal broke the story.

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