Paper tiger

January 16, 2004

THIS WEEK'S announcement by State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli that he could find no evidence to bring charges against Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller hardly came as a surprise. Mr. Montanarelli almost never gets his man.

Senator Miller may well be innocent of the possible campaign finance law violations that prompted Mr. Montanarelli's inquiry. U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio also is looking into the matter and has yet to reach a conclusion. That doesn't excuse a 20-year prosecutorial record for Mr. Montanarelli that is so ineffectual it's become a joke.

In defense of the state prosecutor, legal experts argue that his office was designed to fail. It was created to prosecute big-time political corruption cases but was given a tiny staff and no power to issue subpoenas, empanel grand juries or make immunity deals.

On his own behalf, Mr. Montanarelli offers no excuses. "We were set up to handle high-profile cases, and we haven't done the job. Maybe it's time for me to leave."

It's past time for Mr. Montanarelli to retire. He's been in the post since 1984, and turns 75 in March. The fiasco of his 1999 case against Larry Young - a lawmaker kicked out of the Senate for ethics violations but acquitted of tax evasion and bribery charges by an Anne Arundel County jury unpersuaded by Mr. Montanarelli - so damaged his credibility he's never recovered.

But there's no point in putting another hapless lawyer into a toothless job that makes him or her a figure of ridicule. The General Assembly should eliminate the state prosecutor position and leave the major corruption cases to the U.S. attorney.

A succession of U.S. attorneys had been doing quite well at mopping up political corruption in Maryland when the state prosecutor law was created in 1976. They bagged two county executives, a governor and a vice president. In fact, their success embarrassed Maryland's state's attorneys, the county-based local prosecutors who failed to investigate those cases, and troubled the state's Democratic leadership because Republicans controlled the White House and named the U.S. attorneys.

Thus, a state prosecutor - named by the governor with the blessing of the legislature - was created to take on cases too hot to handle for the state's attorneys. But the state's attorneys didn't want this new prosecutor intruding on their turf, so they limited his power to act without their approval.

The result, said James Browning, director of Common Cause Maryland, was the prosecutorial equivalent of an "inflatable cop," able to dissuade lawbreaking only if miscreants don't look too close.

Mr. Montanarelli, only the second occupant of the position, said he and his staff of 10 spend most of their time on minor matters dumped on them by local prosecutors who don't want to be bothered.

Surely there are better places in a cash-starved state government to spend the $866,000 budgeted for the prosecutor next year.

Public corruption won't be ignored. Mr. DiBiagio, who has his sights on former Maryland State Police Superintendent Edward T. Norris, the Baltimore City Council and members of the last gubernatorial administration as well as Senator Miller, is already on the case.

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