Baltimore to help fund federal prosecution of gun crimes

Grant money will establish a one-year program with two assistant prosecutors targeting firearms

September 04, 2005|By Doug Donovan and Matthew Dolan | Doug Donovan and Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

Maryland's new federal prosecutor and Mayor Martin O'Malley have forged an agreement aimed at producing more prosecutions of gun crimes in Baltimore, an issue that for years had driven a wedge between City Hall and the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Under a deal that marks a thawing of recent icy relations between the two offices, O'Malley agreed to funnel $200,000 from a grant award to bolster U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein's plans to pursue more gun prosecutions in Baltimore.

While the deal is helping to build bridges between O'Malley and Rosenstein, it has stoked recently dormant acrimony between the mayor and Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who said her office deserves the additional resources.

Remains of grant

The money, which comes from what's left of a $2.1 million Justice Department grant awarded last year to the city, will establish two assistant prosecutors who will focus for one year on city gun crimes that violate federal firearms laws.

If the program is successful, Rosenstein and O'Malley - who met Aug. 15 - expect it to continue after the one-year pilot.

"We want to be as helpful to him as we can possibly be in making this partnership stronger," O'Malley said. "With cooperation we can make our city and state ... a much safer place."

Rosenstein struck a similar tone. "I think there is an important role for the federal government to prosecute gun crime," he said. "It's not exclusively a federal program, and we're not going to go it alone."

The cooperation is a significant shift for the two sides.

Public feud

For years O'Malley and former U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio publicly feuded over the pace of federal gun cases. O'Malley frequently chastised DiBiagio for not prosecuting more gun crimes, and at one point characterized DiBiagio's approach as "cowardly."

O'Malley said yesterday that his relationship with DiBiagio got off to a bad start from the moment the two met in 2001, when DiBiagio took office.

"I had a similar meeting at the beginning of Mr. DiBiagio's term at which he told me gun prosecutions would not be a priority and that political prosecutions would be," O'Malley said. "So this was a far more hopeful meeting [with Rosenstein] than the last one I had with a new U.S. attorney."

Public rebuke

The U.S. Department of Justice issued a rare public rebuke last summer of DiBiagio for writing documents that appeared to ascribe a political motive to public corruption cases involving the Baltimore City Council.

DiBiagio resigned in December.

His interim replacement, Allen F. Loucks, announced in March that he was ending the public corruption probe into the council.

Rosenstein, a former high-ranking Justice Department lawyer, took over as Maryland's top prosecutor July 12 and said he would attempt to build a better relationship with the mayor. He said last month that federal prosecutors in Maryland have increased the number of gun prosecutions each year for the past three years but that he would review the office's performance.

On Aug. 15, Rosenstein and some of his top staff met with O'Malley, Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler and the city's new inspector general, Andrew S. Clemmons.

The officials met in the mayor's executive conference room in City Hall to discuss issues of interest between the city and the U.S. attorney's office, including gun prosecutions.

"It was a very constructive and positive meeting between the mayor and the new U.S. attorney," Tyler said. "At that meeting, we confirmed that we were going to do it [fund the two gun prosecutors]."

Question of numbers

Still, O'Malley's administration and the U.S. Attorney's Office do not entirely agree on the number of gun cases the federal prosecutors have taken on over the past few years.

O'Malley administration officials often point to their analysis of federal gun prosecution statistics that they say show Maryland falling behind the Philadelphia; Richmond, Va.; and Northern Virginia regions.

"If you look at the region, we're in last place in terms of the number of federal gun prosecutions that we do," the mayor said.

Rosenstein said the pace of gun cases from his office has been increasing and he believes his office will prosecute more of them this year than last.

Jessamy spokeswoman Margaret T. Burns said the State's Attorney's Office prosecutes far more gun crimes than the U.S. Attorney's Office and state penalties are tougher.

She said O'Malley's administration never consulted with Jessamy and should have realized state cases generate more prison time.

Burns also said the State's Attorney's Office mostly determines which Baltimore gun cases get referred to the federal prosecutors and the agreement between City Hall and Rosenstein usurps that process.

"There's an attitude that the mayor can do it better and that he can show you how to do it better," Burns said. "We need the money. We need more gun prosecutors. Let's bolster state gun prosecutions. [The U.S. Attorney's Office] takes what we want them to take. "

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