Mandel trials revisited

Thirty years after Maryland's governor was convicted in federal court, the players in the case reunite, reminisce

October 13, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

Thirty years after the indictment of Maryland's sitting governor, the lead prosecutor and defense attorney in the trials of former Gov. Marvin Mandel still vehemently disagree.

"The one thing that was missing was a crime," Arnold M. Weiner, Mandel's lead defense attorney, said yesterday of the prosecution. He called Mandel's prison time for a conviction later overturned on appeal "a terrible injustice."

Barnet D. Skolnik, who spearheaded the case for the government, scoffed at the characterization, saying a "monstrously complex fraud was committed" by a political-machine politician elected twice to the governorship.

The still-sharp comments yesterday by the opposing counsel set off a spirited and scholarly examination of the case on its 30th anniversary at the University of Maryland School of Law in downtown Baltimore. Participants, including prosecutors, defense attorneys and the reporters who chronicled their every move for years, filled the afternoon with warm remembrances, new anecdotes and still-hot clashes over the value of a prosecution that took almost two decades to sort out.

The colloquium could have taken on a different flavor if, as expected, the subject of the day had been in attendance. But Mandel, 87, decided at the last minute not to attend, according to Weiner, who spoke to the former governor yesterday. Mandel did not offer an explanation, and a message left at his Annapolis law office was not returned.

The United States of America vs. Mandel et al officially began Nov. 24, 1975, when a federal grand jury handed up a 24-count racketeering and mail fraud indictment against Mandel and five members of his inner circle.

On the heels of the resignation and no-contest plea from Vice President Spiro Agnew, the case against Mandel was also handled by federal prosecutors in Maryland, who established a national reputation for going after public corruption. Many believe the Mandel trials also marked the end of the backroom, political-machine era in Maryland.

Charges against the governor centered on whether he helped engineer a legislative change in order to benefit racetracks in Marlboro and Bowie, in which his close associates had a financial stake.

In 1977, Mandel was found guilty on 17 counts of mail fraud and two counts of racketeering for allegedly accepting gifts and bribes from the racetrack investors in return for his influence.

Nothing about the case was quick or short. The first trial had three judges. The jurors deliberated for more than two weeks. The appellate court first reversed, then affirmed the convictions against Mandel and his co-defendants. Congress changed the mail fraud law used to convict the governor.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan commuted Mandel's prison sentence to the 19 months he had served.

Mandel's conviction was overturned in 1987. But it took another seven years to close the curtain on the remaining issues in what a federal judge called "this ancient criminal case."

Jefferson Gray, an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland who handled the end of the government's case in the early 1990s, came up with the anniversary idea. "We just think there is a ton of terrific stories," said organizer Cy Smith, former president of the Maryland Federal Bar Association.

And he was right.

NBC chief foreign affairs reporter Andrea Mitchell, who covered the trials for a local Washington affiliate, recalled chasing after an ambulance carrying a juror to the hospital. The television reporter tripped, fell and went to the hospital herself as a patient, setting off a round of worry that she could taint the jury.

In the years since the trials, she said, court coverage has proliferated, but "not necessarily deepened. ... We cared a great deal about the [legal] principles involved."

Former Evening Sun reporter Lee Baylin wistfully remembered how reporters and lawyers - and sometimes judges - would engage in casual, off-the-record lunches. It was a practice, he said, that enriched coverage of trials but has largely disappeared as the legal system became more wary of the press in the post-Watergate era.

Tom Green, who represented one of Mandel's co-defendants, expressed regret that he didn't "differentiate" the accusations against his client and those against the governor.

But the former prosecutors said the case was simple bribery through and through. It was never charged that way because a state official could not be brought up on a bribery count in federal court, they said.

The day took an emotional turn when an audience member asked Skolnik whether he would have done anything differently.

No, he responded, but he added that he could never summon the drive to do it again. Then the much-heralded former prosecutor let out a long sigh and started to choke up.

"When you're 66 years old, there is too much gray in the world to ride a white horse and chase bad guys," Skolnik said. "It's a young man's game."

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