Prosecutors argue for restoration of Holton charges

Legislative immunity should not apply, state lawyers say

  • Helen Holton
Helen Holton
May 05, 2010|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Prosecutors argued Wednesday before Maryland's second-highest court that bribery charges against Baltimore Councilwoman Helen L. Holton should be reinstated, contending that a lower court judge erred in barring the introduction of her votes on tax breaks for developers.

The arguments in front of the Court of Special Appeals were the most recent chapter in Holton's lengthy legal battle on charges of bribery and a campaign finance violation. Holton, chairwoman of the council's powerful Taxation and Finance Committee, was accused of receiving donations for a political poll from two Baltimore business leaders whose project received a tax break from her committee. Developer Ronald H. Lipscomb and bakery magnate John Paterakis Sr.

have pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations for bankrolling Holton's poll.

The charges against Holton came as part of an investigation of City Hall corruption that resulted in the resignation of Mayor Sheila Dixon as part of a plea agreement on criminal charges of embezzlement and perjury.

Holton was indicted in January 2009. Four months later, Judge Dennis M. Sweeney threw out the charges, ruling that prosecutors should not have relied on the lawmaker's votes as evidence of criminal behavior. Using that evidence is "prohibited and prejudicial," under a legal doctrine known as legislative immunity, Sweeney said in a memo. State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh indicted Holton again on a lesser campaign finance charge, which is pending.

Wednesday's hearing primarily focused on the bribery charges. Deputy State Prosecutor Thomas M. McDonough argued that Holton should not be shielded by the immunity doctrine — under which legislators' official acts cannot be used as evidence against them — in that case.

"The privilege has been construed in Maryland much more narrowly," McDonough told the panel of three judges, saying that the doctrine's original intent was to protect lawmakers from frivolous lawsuits by opponents. State prosecutors should be able to circumvent legislative immunity in cases involving local officials, just as federal prosecutors are not confined by it in cases involving state officials, McDonough said.

But Joshua R. Treem, an attorney representing Holton, said case law establishes that local lawmakers should be protected in both civil and criminal cases.

McDonough's argument implies "that somehow the Baltimore City Council is a lesser form of legislature than others," Treem said.

He noted that Sweeney had invited prosecutors to submit other evidence tying Holton to the tax breaks, but that prosecutors did not do so.

The three judge panel, comprised of retired Court of Appeals Judge Alan M. Wilner and Judge Arrie W. Davis — who have both written key opinions on legislative immunity — and Judge Patrick L. Woodward, could take weeks or months to issue an opinion.

Wilner suggested that the Court of Special Appeals could be considered a "way station" for the issue, as its decision probably would be appealed to the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

The judges also heard brief arguments from Holton's defense team on the grounds on which they are appealing Sweeney's decision to refuse to dismiss the campaign finance charges. The judges are expected to announce soon whether they will hear that appeal.

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