Gansler aims to widen role, take on gangs

Md. prosecutors question move by state's new attorney general

February 05, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler is seeking to broaden the focus of his office from prosecution of white-collar and environmental crimes to include investigations involving violent street gangs - a change that could boost his role but has stirred controversy among local prosecutors.

The former Montgomery County state's attorney has been pushing to allow authorities to treat gangs like a criminal enterprise and to let his office handle large-scale or multi-jurisdictional investigations through a new anti-gang office.

"We are definitely looking to work more closely with prosecutors and have more of a public-safety focus than in years gone by," Gansler said.

Those new powers would position the attorney general's office to significantly expand the scope of its criminal investigations division, which now has five lawyers and handles charges related to misconduct in office, bribery, perjury, falsification of public records and criminal violations of Maryland tax law. County and federal prosecutors handle most criminal cases.

Last week, prosecutors and legislators sparred over details of the anti-gang measure and the extent of the attorney general's authority. Unable to come to an agreement, Gansler enlisted the help of Gov. Martin O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch to craft a bill.

"We all collectively believe we need to get out in front of this issue and come together with some additional tools. The issue has been under [what] circumstances," said Frank M. Kratovil Jr., the state's attorney for Queen Anne's County.

Despite rising gang-related violence in recent years, Maryland has fewer laws dealing with the issue than many states - giving legislators a largely blank canvas.

Authorities across the state say gangs have been spreading and are increasingly violent. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Gang Investigators Network, which includes federal, state and local law enforcement and criminal justice officials, estimates that there are more than 8,000 gang members in Maryland, including about 3,500 in the Baltimore area.

According to several top prosecutors, members of the Maryland State's Attorneys Association had been studying gang-related laws across the nation since October and settled on a statute similar to California's Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act. They found co-sponsors in both chambers of the General Assembly.

But Gansler has said that he believes the state must draft legislation more similar to the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, giving prosecutors the ability to take down gang members in a wholesale fashion, as was done with organized crime.

Last month, the state's attorneys group was set to present its plan to a legislative committee when Gansler asked if he could testify in support.

He went first. The topic of his testimony: the need for RICO.

"This was a very, very proactive task force. All of a sudden, to have somebody come in who did not participate - and it's understandable, he was running for office - but these guys have ownership of this," said state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican representing parts of Harford and Cecil counties who planned to sponsor a Senate bill. "They're extremely interested in the gang issue, and they feel they are capable of handling it."

The catalyst for the new bill, however, might have been the extent to which Gansler's office could prosecute gang crimes. He wanted a provision that would allow him to pursue criminal investigations without the consent of local prosecutors, who said they oppose any carte blanche authority.

Some supporters of the original proposal were upset by the new effort pushed by Gansler and pledged to work toward a tougher bill.

"It is unfortunate that a good bill that used national best practices was hijacked, watered down and is now unlikely to result in any measurable prosecutions of violent gangs in Maryland," said Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

More than 30 states have adopted RICO laws, which were created in 1970 to take on the Mafia. In Maryland, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, using the federal statute, helped bring about the indictments of 19 members of the violent Mara Salvatrucha gang in 2005.

"It makes the case more complicated, but it gives you an advantage because the jury gets to see the entire scope of criminal activity," Rosenstein said. "It's about attacking the problem, not just at street level but the organization level, and its hierarchy and leaders."

Maryland is home to one of the more famous people to be convicted under that law: Then-Gov. Marvin Mandel was convicted in 1977 of racketeering and mail fraud for using his influence to help friends who owned a Prince George's County racetrack in exchange for cash and gifts. His conviction was overturned in 1987.

But state's attorneys said they favored the sentencing enhancements of California's STEP Act, which also provides for forfeiture of gang assets and proceeds of its crimes.

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