V is for vindication

January 26, 2007

Anyone writing a text on abuse of power ought to include an entry on the Ehrlich administration's handling of Stephen P. Amos. This week, Mr. Amos was reimbursed for $193,194 in legal bills he amassed defending himself from charges that he misused a federal grant back when he ran the governor's crime control office under Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s predecessor.

He was never charged with profiting from the grant. What was alleged was that he had essentially used federal money to pay the salaries of staffers who were political operatives of then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. But that turned out not to be illegal under a decade-old opinion. All charges were subsequently dropped by the Republican prosecutor and the indictment was expunged. As is standard practice in such cases, it was recommended by Maryland's attorney general that the state pay his legal fees.

But Mr. Ehrlich and his chief counsel, Jervis S. Finney, steadfastly refused to put it on the Board of Public Works agenda. Mr. Finney, a former U.S. attorney, insisted that some unspecified wrongdoing must have taken place no matter what the judge or prosecutor might believe. Even by Annapolis standards, such arrogance was stunning - particularly because Mr. Ehrlich benefited politically from the Amos prosecution.

Ms. Townsend's connection to the case was clearly helpful to Mr. Ehrlich and his fellow Republicans in the 2002 election. Because of this obvious conflict of interest, it was a matter that should have been kept at arm's length by the administration.

The overdue reimbursement won't repair Mr. Amos' life, but perhaps it will bring a degree of vindication. Comptroller Peter Franchot's observation that the matter is a "black mark on the history of the state" is sadly correct. If there's a lesson here, it's a reminder that determining guilt should be a matter for the courts alone. Attempting to punish those found innocent of wrongdoing is way over the line - no matter how ethically superior those in power may judge themselves. In reality, such mean-spirited behavior is simply a textbook-worthy example of authority misused.

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