War of words over crime

Jessamy, 2 members of council square off at hearing on budget

March 09, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ AND JOHN FRITZE | JULIE BYKOWICZ AND JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTERS

What was supposed to be a routine City Council budget hearing for the state's attorney's office yesterday erupted into a shouting match between Baltimore's top prosecutor and two council members who cut her off and abruptly walked out of the room.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy attended a hearing that was expected to address a long-discussed $1.9 million increase in her budget, but Councilman James B. Kraft changed its direction late last week by asking her to present statistics about her agency's conviction rates and other benchmarks.

The dispute underscored long-standing tension between Jessamy and City Hall and came as Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, has faced questions in recent weeks about the Police Department's crime data. Critics say those statistics suggest greater crime reduction than Baltimore has experienced.

Some council members stared in stunned silence as the joint budget and public safety committee hearing devolved into an angry exchange that was unexpectedly halted, a move that at least one lawmaker called rude.

"I think it's politics," Jessamy said of the turn of events. "Someone wanted them to work to discredit me."

Yesterday's hearing began unraveling as Kraft and Council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake - who have stood behind the mayor as others have called for a review of his crime statistics - questioned why Jessamy had not followed through with a management audit they said she had agreed to last year. Those council members said her $1.9 million budget supplement was contingent on the review.

Jessamy said she had agreed to no such thing.

The prosecutor's voice rose as she pointed out that days earlier, the council had determined that the Police Department did not need to be audited.

She went on to say that none of her employees is under investigation or indictment - an apparent reference to problems with the Southwestern District flex squad - and that, unlike the Police Department, she did not overrun her budget each year by millions of dollars.

Later, she said she would not agree to a management audit until the Police Department had been audited.

`Most, most shocking'

Kraft said it was "most, most shocking" that Jessamy's crime-fighting plan was developed in 1997. As Jessamy tried to respond, he and Rawlings Blake indicated that they would be ending the hearing.

Jessamy tried to keep talking.

"You have not been recognized, Mrs. Jessamy," Rawlings Blake said, shouting over Jessamy. "You have not been recognized."

Moments later, Kraft, chairman of the public safety subcommittee, and Rawlings Blake, chairwoman of the budget committee, adjourned, gathered their belongings and walked out of the room.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke invited Jessamy to continue her presentation, later calling the unexpected adjournment "extremely rude" and "the worst performance I have been a party to in my 17 years as an elected official."

Council President Sheila Dixon eventually stepped in to end the meeting, saying she was as surprised as everyone else about what had happened.

The testy tenor of the meeting continued in the hallways outside the council chamber when several members, including Kraft, held heated news conferences to explain why the committee meeting had been adjourned so abruptly.

Kraft attacked the state's attorney's office's felony conviction rate - which he said has dropped to 67 percent - and questioned Jessamy's competence.

"She is not the person to be leading the prosecution team in the city of Baltimore," Kraft said. "She is not a prosecutor."

Jessamy criticized

Kraft stopped short of asking for Jessamy to resign. Instead, he criticized her for public statements she has made in recent weeks questioning the Police Department's arrest policy.

"I'm not asking her to quit. I'm asking her to be responsible ... and stop blaming it on everybody else," he said.

Kraft repeatedly denied that the hearing was an attempt to shift attention away from recent questions about the crime rate during O'Malley's tenure. Administration officials quickly said they had nothing to do with the episode.

"You'll have to direct your questions to Councilman Kraft and Councilwoman Rawlings Blake," O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney said. "It's their hearing."

Some council members struggled to explain what had happened at a hearing that they had thought would be a perfunctory budget approval.

"I think we were all set up," Clarke said.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com john.fritze@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.