City judge is sentenced

Fine, probation in Arundel wetlands case

June 03, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun reporter

A Baltimore judge accused of dumping hundreds of tons of building materials along his waterfront property in Anne Arundel County was sentenced yesterday to one year of unsupervised probation and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and remove the debris in a deal that will likely spare him a criminal record.

District Judge Askew W. Gatewood Jr. pleaded not guilty to one count of unlawfully filling state wetlands without a license but avoided a trial by agreeing to the prosecutor's statement of facts. By completing a state and federally approved site remediation plan along his Pasadena property, Gatewood will also likely receive probation before judgment.

In addition, Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner ordered Gatewood to pay the county $6,500 in damages. The remaining charges in the criminal 12-count indictment were dropped.

Gatewood, 57, did not make a statement before Lerner, but spoke only to acknowledge that he understood the proceedings. He and his attorneys declined to comment after the hearing.

Darrell S. Pressley, a spokesman for the Maryland judiciary, declined to comment on the proceedings or whether the court will initiate an investigation with the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities, which investigates allegations of judge misconduct. He called an investigation "a potential next step."

"At this point, no definitive decision has been made, in terms of what the next step would be in this matter," Pressley said. "That's the question right now. Those decisions will be made sometime in the future."

One environmental group questioned the sentence's toughness.

"We're disappointed that such a flagrant violation of environmental laws brought little more than a rap on the knuckles," said David Prosten, chairman of the Anne Arundel County chapter of the Sierra Club. "Land on the waterfront is under intense pressure from development and stormwater runoff, and ultimately it's up to the judicial system to protect the environment. And judges after all are law enforcement officers, and as such they have a special responsibility to be that much more mindful."

Prosecutor Bernard Penner, of the state attorney general's office's environmental crimes division, said he was "very satisfied" with the case's conclusion.

"The cleanup of the site can begin now, without a protracted appeal and legal process," Penner said after the hearing. "We get the problem resolved promptly."

Max H. Lauten, one of Gatewood's attorneys, appealed to the judge to consider his client's standing in the community as a judge.

"Before you is a man who has been a member of the Maryland judiciary for over 20 years, who has an impeccable record, no blemishes on his record whatsoever," Lauten said, adding, "Mr. Gatewood acquired this property in 1990. He largely built the house with his own hands. He's put his blood, sweat and tears into this property. He loves it dearly."

According to a statement of facts read in court, after receiving an anonymous complaint, a code compliance supervisor from the county visited Gatewood's property on Bay Road in Riviera Beach on Oct. 13, 2006.

The inspector saw the piles of debris, found that no permits had been issued for the property and posted a stop-work order on the home's fence, the prosecutor said. Gatewood later gave investigators permission to enter his property and on Oct. 18, 2006, officials from the Maryland Department of the Environment visited the site by boat and documented "tons of concrete and construction debris," Penner, the prosecutor, said.

The rubble was spread along 520 feet of linear shoreline and ranged in width from 16 feet to nearly 50 feet, Penner said.

Lauten said his client was fixing damage his property sustained during Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003. Lauten said his client had similar work performed along his property in 1996 and 1997 after another storm and "had proceeded in a way he thought was similar.

"The vast majority of the material on that site were large chunks of concrete that he thought would be acceptable," Lauten said. "Towards the tail end of the project, in an unauthorized fashion, some people dumped construction debris on the site, and that is how that came to be there. That had not been authorized by him. It certainly was not desired by him."

After the January indictment, Lauten and Gatewood's other attorney, John F. Dougherty, argued for the case to be dismissed, saying County Executive John R. Leopold had unfairly targeted Gatewood because he is a judge, challenging the state's jurisdictional right to pursue charges, questioning the statute of limitations and suggesting the charging documents were improperly filed. The defense dropped all pending motions in the case yesterday.

Leopold, who personally called the attorney general's office last year to complain that the state was not moving quickly enough to prosecute the case, said yesterday, "The law humbles everyone, including judges. The most important thing is that everyone will benefit by cleaning up the property."

Raquel M. Guillory, a spokeswoman for the office, said the case was "aggressively" prosecuted from the start.

"We wanted the shoreline restored, and this plea agreement gets us to this point, along with a significant penalty," she said. "I don't think anyone can say we went light on him."

Before he was sentenced, Gatewood paid the $10,000 fine with a cashier's check, made out to the Maryland Tidal Wetlands Compensation Fund.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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