Trial of the century

Editorial Notebook

October 13, 2007|By Peter Jensen

For an afternoon, it was the summer of '77.

Jimmy Carter was president. Gas was 62 cents a gallon. "You Light Up My Life" topped the pop charts and Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel and five co-defendants were on trial for an elaborate bribery scheme.

Memories of the Mandel trial may have faded in the public consciousness, but yesterday in a packed moot courtroom in downtown Baltimore, they were crystal clear again - thanks to members of Baltimore's Federal Bar Association and the University of Maryland School of Law who assembled many of the still-prominent (and alive) lawyers from both sides to discuss the trial and its fallout. Every student of state government should have been there.

To no one's surprise, the advocates are still as resolute in their positions as they were then, but the facts, as Barnet D. Skolnik, the lead prosecutor and former assistant U.S. attorney, pointed out, "speak for themselves": Mr. Mandel and the others were found guilty of mail fraud and racketeering.

How relevant is any of that ancient history three decades later? The Mandel case revolved around horse racing (specifically the former Marlboro Race Track in Prince George's County) and a clever manipulation of the legislative process to financially benefit a small group of friends who had showered him with more than $300,000 in gifts, loans and other considerations.

Fast-forward to today, when the General Assembly is expected soon to debate whether to permit thousands of slot machines at racetracks, a move that similarly stands to benefit a politically connected few. For many in Annapolis, that should strike a chord.

The Mandel trial - the second trial, actually, since a 1976 effort ended in a mistrial - came during a seemingly endless run of federally prosecuted public corruption cases in Maryland. There was the big fish, Spiro T. Agnew, of course, the former governor and vice president who helped turn "nolo contendere" into the state motto, but there were also county executives Joseph W. Alton Jr. of Anne Arundel and Dale Anderson of Baltimore, both of whom did time in prison, Edward A. Garmatz, the former congressman who was tried in the courthouse named after him, and a host of smaller fry.

Other than Mr. Agnew, none drew national attention like Mr. Mandel, the first U.S. governor to be convicted of a crime while in office in more than four decades.

What happened in the subsequent appeal-filled years turned an untidy matter into a truly muddled one.

The former governor's conviction was overturned two decades ago by what was essentially a revised interpretation of mail fraud (made possible by a Supreme Court ruling in an unrelated case, a loophole closed by Congress not long after). Mr. Mandel was no longer a felon, but it was far short of an absolution.

That has left the Mandel case a frustrating but oddly compelling mixture of legacies. Lawyers can relish the complexities, the drama. Politicos see the government reforms it generated, and the end of machine-style politics in the state.

The rest of us can only scratch our heads and wonder why a man who brought such shame can today serve on the University of Maryland's Board of Regents or be hailed as an elder statesman in Annapolis. He may have been punished severely, but it's hard to forgive someone who to this day has never admitted wrongdoing.

Gambling, big money, divorce, political intrigue, tragedy, a four-year federal prison sentence, a presidential commutation - the Mandel case had it all. What it didn't have was an overtone of partisan politics. Prosecutors might have been Republican appointees going after a progressive and successful Democratic governor, but as Arnold M. Weiner, Mr. Mandel's attorney, pointed out, it never occurred to the defense team to make an issue of it. Mr. Skolnik and his peers might have been viewed as overzealous but never politically motivated.

Perhaps the only matter on which both sides of the Mandel trial can agree today is that such a view of the Justice Department has sadly come and gone.

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