Jessamy's official spokeswoman speaks up about campaign

Remarks on campaign issue may be problematic

September 16, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday's contentious primary election for Baltimore state's attorney, Margaret T. Burns deferred questions about her boss' re-election bid to a spokeswoman hired by the campaign.

Burns earns about $100,000 a year to speak on behalf of Jessamy and her prosecutors, usually about convictions and cases won in court. During the primary race, the city's top prosecutor maintained a separate Web page and Facebook page for the campaign, signals that office work and political work shouldn't mix.

But on Wednesday, Burns took center stage in Jessamy's bid to retain her office. After her boss came up 1,295 votes short to opponent Gregg Bernstein, Burns appeared on television stations standing in front of the downtown courthouse and was quoted on the front page of The Baltimore Sun raising questions about the ballot count.

Jessamy's campaign spokeswoman, Marilyn Harris-Davis, was nowhere to be found. Burns' statements raise questions about whether a public employee can and should speak on a political issue that calls into question the integrity of the voting system.

Burns talked about alleged problems in certain precincts and was quoted by Sun reporter Tricia Bishop saying that Jessamy "wants to be sure that these numbers reflect 100 percent of the votes cast. It's going to be a tedious process."

In an interview, Burns said that "the campaign is over" and that reporters were demanding answers about whether Jessamy would concede the race.

"I was the messenger for my boss," she said. "There are unanswered questions. I addressed them for the media. That's my job. … That is totally permissible within every guideline I have seen."

Burns —an ardent defender and advocate for the city prosecutor's office —has drawn fire from city law enforcement and from Bernstein, who complained that she too often blamed police for failures to prosecute offenders.

Michael Runnels, a professor of law and public responsibility at Loyola University, said that with absentee ballots still being counted and Jessamy not conceding, "the campaign isn't over." When Burns waded in, he said, the public in effect "subsidized a private message" on behalf of Jessamy.

"Here we have a state employee acting as a campaign spokesperson," Runnels said. "Even if she's acting in good faith, at a minimum she's out there advocating" for a politician.

"She should be doing the people's work of justice, not engaging in the political machinations of one public official's questionably failing campaign."

University of Maryland journalism professor Christopher T. Hanson, an expert on politics, ethics and news reporting, called Burns' statements "baffling."

He said the public "should care because if there aren't any rules and regulations to differentiate public service jobs from election jobs, you would have a revision to the old spoils system where the people who are supposed to be doing the public's work are electioneering during office hours."

The Maryland attorney general's office would not comment on the specific case but did provide the applicable state law that says a state employee "may not engage in political activity while on the job during work hours."

The Maryland Ethics Commission has issued an "ethics law memo" on state employees being involved in politics:

"It is possible that campaign employment, such as working for a campaign staff while continuing in a state position could raise questions about the ability of an employee to be objective in his or her state job," the memo says. "Both paid workers and volunteers must maintain a clear separation between working at a state job and handling matters for a campaign."

Burns isn't the only person whose conduct during the election process has been questioned.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III took the unusual step of publicly backing Jessamy's challenger by putting a Bernstein campaign sign on his front lawn. He stressed that it was his private residence and said he refused to talk about his support for Bernstein while on duty and while in uniform.

Jessamy questioned whether the chief solicited help for Bernstein by approaching a man during a police neighborhood walk, and reporters and radio talk-show hosts routinely peppered Bealefeld with questions about both the city and the campaign while he was on duty. He took down the sign after a few days.

A group of city prosecutors appeared in one of Jessamy's television ads; a city police spokesman appeared in one of Bernstein's ads wearing a generic shirt with the word "police" on it. The department took pains to note that the officer had permission and was off-duty at the time. A uniformed police officer was spotted at Bernstein's campaign headquarters on Election Night.

Hanson said that it appears people on both sides skirted the rules.

"It sounds like a situation that is very muddled, with a pattern of people jumping back and forth," he said. "Obviously you want to have the law to preserve some sort of professional sphere that is not totally embroiled in political campaigning. But if people are working around on the margins, what's the point?"

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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