State's attorney race sets contrast

Incumbent Weathersbee points to his experience

Burns calls for fresh approach

October 22, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee says experience and innovation give voters a reason to return him for a fourth term, but challenger Michael W. Burns says it's time for new leadership and fresh approaches in the prosecutor's office.

"I can do a better job," said Republican Burns, 44, in an interview. "After 30-plus years in the state's attorney's office and 14 years as the state's attorney, he's given all he has got."

Not so, countered the Democratic incumbent, who said he has successfully run a 96-person office while introducing new programs.

"I do like the job of prosecution. It is my life's work. I am still young," said Weathersbee, 58.

The race pits Weathersbee, a Crownsville resident who was an assistant state's attorney before taking the office reins in 1988, against Burns, a lawyer and GOP activist from Linthicum who served one term in the House of Delegates.

Weathersbee has cast his experience as the big issue, and has criticized Burns for his relative lack of it, saying his opponent does not have a background in law office management and has practiced little criminal law.

Burns has promised to launch new ideas and to target gun and drug crimes. A former member of the House Judiciary Committee, he says the incumbent has failed to take a tougher stance against violent crime.

"We have got to refocus our priorities," Burns said.

The office needs more prosecutors so they can spend more time on felony drug and weapons cases, Burns said. Drug prosecutors, he said, each handle 300 to 400 cases a year, which he said is too many.

Burns wants to ask lawyers in private practice to prosecute minor crimes at no charge, "to free up the professionally trained prosecutors to handle the drug and the firearms cases."

He suggests supplementing the office's $6.5 million budget with funds from a private foundation that would help pay for more prosecutors. He also says the office should seek more grants.

Burns, a former regional fund-raising director for Father Flanagan's Girls and Boys Town, maintains a small, private legal practice in estates, trusts and planned giving. He has handled a few criminal matters over the years.

After failed bids in Towson for state delegate in 1982 and 1986, Burns won a seat in 1994 in Linthicum, but was defeated four years later. He served four times on the Republican State Central Committee. A former head of the Maryland Right to Life political action committee, he served as executive director of the Maryland Republican Party in 1988 and 1989.

Burns is married to lobbyist Kimberly McCoy, daughter of former Del. Dennis C. McCoy, a Baltimore Democrat. They have two young daughters.

In his bid for re-election, Weathersbee is stressing what he says are innovations he has brought to the state's attorney's office.

His office was one of the first in the state to start a victim-witness assistance program. With the help of other agencies, the office formed what were among the state's earliest courts for teen-agers and drug cases. He also established a unit to prosecute the increasing number of white-collar and computer crimes.

Before the state began the HotSpot anti-crime initiative in troubled neighborhoods, Weathersbee's prosecutors worked closely with police and the communities, Weathersbee said.

And in recent months, the office has begun using paralegals to screen all criminal complaints brought privately, reducing District Court prosecutions by weeding out weak cases, strengthening others and diverting some to mediation and other programs, he said.

Weathersbee said he is well aware that prosecutions can be costly. Two years ago, he refused to open cases on crimes committed in prison until the state agreed to subsidize them. He won a one-year grant, and the costs of helping jurisdictions with state prisons are being studied.

He said his office receives about $400,000 in grants each year.

Each Circuit Court prosecutor carries about 60 felony cases at a time, which Weathersbee said is a manageable number. Although his office has used volunteer prosecutors in the past, he rejects the idea of relying upon them for its continued operation.

"Could we use more attorneys? Sure. But where do you want attorneys to go first?" Weathersbee asked, noting that prosecutors are needed not just for drug and gun cases, but also in areas such as white-collar and computer crimes.

At times, too, he said, other resources are needed more than lawyers; he has added paralegals, victim-witness advocates and investigators.

He also rejects the idea of establishing a foundation to benefit the office.

Weathersbee became state's attorney when he was appointed to fill the term of Warren B. Duckett Jr., who left for a Circuit Court judgeship. Weathersbee was a founding member of the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a group of courts and agencies related to criminal prosecutions, and he worked to keep the committee alive during the early years of the administration of former County Executive John G. Gary.

Weathersbee and his wife, Patricia, a drug counselor and owner of an antique shop, have four grown children.

As of the Aug. 30 filing deadline, Weathersbee had raised $77,436, campaign reports show, and Burns had raised $12,015.

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