Trust the Process

August 21, 2002

ANGERED BY what she sees as a Republican conspiracy to smear her and her crime-control programs, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wants to balance the political scales by having the programs examined by Maryland's Democratic attorney general, J. Joseph Curran Jr.

She may have a point, but her counterprobe idea raises serious questions.

Federal authorities apparently want to know if Ms. Townsend's programs were used to promote her candidacy for governor rather than to control crime.

Subpoenas sought records of grants in which the University of Maryland College Park was asked to hire about 30 workers who were supervised by the crime-control office.

Ms. Townsend called the investigation by U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio "political garbage" -- because Mr. DiBiagio, a Republican, was recommended for his post by Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Ms. Townsend's likely opponent in this year's race for governor.

She says the programs were conducted in line with federal rules. And she wants Mr. Curran to verify her contention that linking her programs to the university was perfectly proper.

But how much clarity will Mr. Curran be able to achieve? If the Ehrlich-DiBiagio connection is garbage, what is Townsend-Curran?

And what of the broader process? Does anyone think it would be advisable to have dueling investigations? Would every probe by a federal administration of one party be open to investigation by an arm of the other? What if both the U.S. attorney and a state's attorney general were members of the same party? How would another party get its day in court?

That's not to say Ms. Townsend's counter-probe proposal is entirely without merit. Mr. DiBiagio's investigation cannot evade a whiff of political motivation because it lands in the midst of the gubernatorial campaign. Even if his findings come before the election, a trial certainly would not occur for many months after the election. In the meantime, his probe will have done its political damage. It's common sense for Ms. Townsend to try to minimize that damage with a political move of her own.

Some in Mr. Ehrlich's campaign have snickered at Ms. Townsend's decision, pointing out that she did not seek the attorney general's opinion before grants were given out. But they're playing silly politics, at best. The lieutenant governor is responding now because the U.S. attorney has raised questions about the grant process. In the absence of those questions, why would she need to seek anyone's approval?

So, let Mr. Curran do his examination for whatever it's worth. And let Mr. DiBiagio's probe be completed as swiftly as possible.

In the end, we have to trust the process. It's a system of laws -- not of women or men or political parties.

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