State prosecutors abruptly dropped theft, embezzlement and perjury charges against a former campaign worker for City Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch yesterday because, they said, Branch's testimony conflicted with earlier statements she made to a grand jury.
Branch was the key witness in the case in city Circuit Court. The defendant, Momoh Abu Conteh, 49, was charged after the state prosecutor's office reviewed Branch's campaign records and discovered $2,000 missing. Branch told prosecutors that Conteh stole the money, but Conteh said the councilwoman told him to give it to the campaign of state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden.
Yesterday, the case fell apart after Branch testified that she might have approved the transfer after all. But she still maintains that Conteh stole the money. An official for the McFadden campaign has denied ever receiving the money and the transfer was never recorded.
State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh would not comment on Branch's testimony but said his team planned to review statements she made to an Anne Arundel grand jury last year. He said Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Steven Trostle did the right thing when he asked Judge Allen L. Schwait to dismiss the case against Conteh.
"The indictment of Mr. Conteh was based on sworn testimony before a ... grand jury, and when a witness substantially changes the testimony, the state ethically has a duty to dismiss the case, which we did," Rohrbaugh said in a telephone interview.
Conteh, who has three daughters, lost his job as a city housing authority administrator as a result of the charges. He shed tears after Trostle announced that he had "no choice" but to drop the charges.
Branch's testimony in the case has raised new questions about her role in the matter. Conteh's attorneys, who reviewed Branch's grand jury testimony in preparation for the trial, suggested that the councilwoman might have changed her story.
"Her testimony [in Circuit Court] was completely irreconcilable with her prior statement before the grand jury," said defense attorney Steven D. Silverman, who represented Conteh along with attorney Andrew C. White.
The state prosecutor's office began investigating Conteh last year after local Green Party officials complained about Branch's campaign reports. Branch's campaign has repeatedly failed to file timely and accurate campaign reports since at least 2001. Branch blamed Conteh for some of the missed deadlines and mistakes, as well as the missing $2,000.
She told prosecutors she never ordered Conteh to take cash from the now-defunct Supporters of Paula Johnson Branch campaign fund and give it to Marie Washington, leader of the powerful Eastside Democratic Organization, for use by the McFadden Team. State law prohibits the transfer of cash between campaign funds except those designated for petty cash, and even then cash disbursements must be limited to $25 and backed up by receipts.
But yesterday, during cross-examination by Silverman, Branch gave different information.
"Is it possible that Marie Washington contacted you or someone in your organization and asked that $2,000 be transferred," Silverman asked the councilwoman.
"That's possible, yes," Branch responded.
In a telephone interview later in the day, Branch said she has always told the "absolute truth" and accused Silverman of twisting her words.
"Mr. Silverman was rephrasing what I was saying and putting his own terminology on it," Branch said.
The councilwoman said prosecutors should have called other witnesses to the stand before dropping charges against Conteh.
Prosecutors had scheduled McFadden and Washington, who also heads the nonprofit East Baltimore Community Corp., to testify in the trial, but McFadden told the court Monday that he had had back surgery and could not leave his house.
Schwait issued a warrant of body attachment, which would have required the senator to attend regardless of his medical condition, but it was never executed. Washington was prepared to testify, but the case was dismissed before she got a chance.
The Conteh case has also exposed possible wrongdoing by Washington and McFadden, who failed to record the $2,000 cash transfer. State law requires campaign officials to keep track of financial transactions.
In addition, Conteh has said that Washington and McFadden used the $2,000 for "walking-around money" or to pay campaign workers. At the time, such payments were illegal. However, in March 2004 the Maryland Court of Appeals struck down the law, saying that it unduly restricted free speech.
McFadden and Washington did not return telephone calls seeking comment yesterday.
Kathryn Parke, a local Green Party representative who has complained about Branch's campaign finance reports, said she hopes the state prosecutor will take action against the councilwoman, McFadden and Washington.
"We think this case is really the tip of the iceberg in campaign finance irregularities in East Baltimore," Parke said. "We're looking forward to what comes next."