Apology follows council set-to

Kraft, Rawlings Blake issue statement

Jessamy responds

March 10, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

Two Baltimore City Council members apologized last night for their handling of a routine budget hearing that turned into a political melee and stoked long-standing acrimony between City Hall and the city prosecutor's office.

Councilman James B. Kraft and Council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake issued their written apology a day after they walked out on State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy at the hearing, sparking a controversy that continued yesterday.

The apology was released hours after many of their colleagues made scathing statements condemning their actions.

"If, by our actions, we sidestepped decorum and anyone felt compromised or embarrassed, we sincerely apologize," the statement read. "We respect our elected officials and never intended to show disrespect to any of them."

But in a statement last night, Jessamy said that "if this statement was meant as an apology, it falls short."

Wednesday's hearing, a joint meeting of the council's budget and public safety committees, was originally intended to address an expected $1.9 million increase in Jessamy's budget but rapidly turned into a shouting match that ended when Kraft and Rawlings Blake stormed out.

The blowup again exposed the tension between Jessamy and Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor and who has been attacked in recent weeks over statistics that his critics believe overstate the city's crime reduction. Kraft and Rawlings Blake are two of O'Malley's strongest supporters on the council.

Jessamy - who has endorsed O'Malley's primary opponent, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan - said in her statement last night that she had come to the council to present requested data, but never got the chance to speak. "Fiscal oversight is one thing. Attempts at micromanagement of the state's attorney are inappropriate, unreasonable and unconstitutional," she said.

At a courthouse news conference earlier in the day, Jessamy hinted that larger political forces might have been involved, though she never drew a direct connection to O'Malley and acknowledged that she could not prove his administration played any part.

Jessamy, who distributed a video of the hearing and asked that it be aired repeatedly on public access television, said she would not address the council again unless she could be assured that a similar confrontation would not occur.

"I will not respond to political pressure," she said. "I believe that this council meeting was orchestrated in an attempt to discredit me, and I believe it was politically motivated."

At several events throughout the city yesterday, O'Malley was questioned about whether his administration had used the hearing as a way to deflect attention from the recent crime statistics criticism. The mayor said he had not spoken with committee members except in a "general sense" before the meeting.

"The council has an oversight role, and part of their job is to hold all agencies accountable," O'Malley said at a ribbon-cutting for an east-side grocery store. "The council has its job to do, and I have my job to do."

In an interview last night, Rawlings Blake said the mayor's office had helped prepare a packet of statistics detailing the prosecutor's performance, but the councilwoman said she and Kraft alone decided how to conduct the hearing.

Behind the scenes, the administration appeared to be reaching out to Jessamy's office. A letter sent by Deputy Mayor Jeanne D. Hitchcock said O'Malley officials were surprised by what happened at the hearing.

"It is no secret that our offices have had their differences over the years," read the letter, obtained by The Sun. "But we certainly want the state's attorney to have an opportunity to address the council."

On its face, the quarrel turned on two key points: a management audit of her office that some believe Jessamy agreed to conduct in exchange for a $1.9 million increase in her budget - but that instead has languished - and a dispute over the city's prosecution rate.

Jessamy denies ever agreeing to the audit and continued to argue that the city's Police Department and its crime statistics should be studied first. She said the felony prosecution rate had slipped to about 67 percent, in large part because of key witnesses who fail to appear in court and police officers who don't show up to testify.

The full-page apology said Jessamy had been negotiating with City Hall on the details of an audit but that progress on the issue had inexplicably stopped. It also said more time is needed to review data she presented at the hearing, and the two council members vowed to reconvene the hearing, though no date was specified.

"We are confident that Ms. Jessamy will provide full and complete answers to all of our questions and address all of our concerns," the statement read, noting that the two council members plan to support the $1.9 million budget supplement.

Earlier in the day, several Democratic officials - including City Council President Sheila Dixon and Duncan - issued statements condemning what happened at the meeting.

"I insist that council members conduct themselves with decorum in the council chamber," Dixon's statement read. "As council president, I will not tolerate rudeness and contempt from my colleagues."

Duncan, who is expected to appear with Jessamy this morning at a previously scheduled event, called the hearing an "egregious attempt" to discredit Jessamy.

,john.fritze@baltsun.com

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