Prosecutor under fire

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Maryland State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh claims that he has no hobbies, and that he's just not that interesting. He says he spends long days at his Towson office and then heads home to spend time with his family in Montgomery County.

But the man with the simple lifestyle is the same one who ordered a raid last week on the home of Mayor Sheila Dixon. As television cameras rolled, Rohrbaugh's staff carted off file folders and boxes full of unknown contents. After two years of investigating contracting practices at City Hall, Rohrbaugh's office issued a flurry of new subpoenas last week to Dixon associates, some of whom are expected to testify before a city grand jury this week.

Dixon happens to be his latest investigative subject, but Rohrbaugh, 60, and his team of investigators have delved into the public, personal and financial lives of Maryland's A-list, from major political donors to the former dean of the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners.

In some cases, he has netted guilty pleas and fines - in one, he returned millions in stolen funds to the city school system. But others, such as the liquor board case, have yielded no results, prompting criticism from those who complain that he wastes years and millions of taxpayer dollars on baseless investigations. Tuesday's raid has brought pressure like never before, including accusations that the Republican appointee is targeting Democrats.

"It'd better be more than ... something [they could have received ] had they asked the lawyer," said Gerard P. Martin, a lawyer for Doracon Contracting - a company that was raided last year as part of the probe. "It takes a lot of nerve to go out" and raid a private home.

Rohrbaugh and his staff don't answer questions about their investigations - they won't even confirm whether one is under way. But based on the guilty pleas, searches and subpoenas over the past two years, the office appears to be investigating City Hall contracting practices from Dixon's time as City Council president.

The Sun reported in 2006 that Dixon voted on contracts that benefited her sister's employer, Utech. The paper also revealed that the City Council had paid Dixon's longtime friend and campaign chairman, Dale G. Clark, for computer work without a contract. He was paid $500,000 over five years.

Clark and Mildred Boyer, the founder of Utech, have pleaded guilty to tax charges as a result of the investigation and have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

The General Assembly created the state prosecutor's office in 1976 after a series of public corruption scandals in Maryland. The office, which is designed to be independent of political influence, can initiate investigations on its own or at the request of the governor, legislature or other top officials. Rohrbaugh is the third person to head the office.

Rohrbaugh has never liked to take questions from reporters, especially those who want to pry into his personal life and probe his views on keeping government honest. He declined to be interviewed for this article and wouldn't agree to a photograph.

According to a report his office issued four years ago, he earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Wittenburg University in Ohio in 1969 and his law degree from American University's Washington College of Law in 1972. The report said he is married and has two daughters. He lives in Brinklow in Montgomery County.

Four years ago, after his appointment was announced, Rohrbaugh made a brief statement that gave no hint as to how he would run the office, which some at the time argued had become dangerously atrophied "I think it's an exciting position," Rohrbaugh told The Sun.

Rohrbaugh started his law career in the 1970s. He was an assistant U.S. attorney from 1974 to 1980. The man who put him in the job was former U.S. Attorney George Beall, who at the time of his appointment called Rohrbaugh an "experienced practitioner" and a professional who is "genuinely admired by members of the judiciary."

One of the admirers at the time was former Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale Kelberman, who started in the federal prosecutor's office after Rohrbaugh had moved on, but who knew him from alumni gatherings. He said then that Rohrbaugh was "a person of integrity."

Now Kelberman is an attorney in private practice with a high-profile client: Sheila Dixon. He said that's changed his opinion of the state prosecutor, but only slightly.

"I still think he's a person of integrity, but we have a difference of opinion about how to conduct an investigation," Kelberman said.

"I do find it interesting," Kelberman said of the change of circumstances.

After his time with the U.S. attorney's office, Rohrbaugh went into private practice in Rockville. He specialized in product liability cases involving child restraints.

In 1997, he took leave from his law practice to serve as senior investigative counsel to the Republican-controlled House Government Reform and Oversight Committee in its investigation into allegations of illegal foreign contributions to former President Bill Clinton's re-election campaign. Democrats called the investigation a Republican boondoggle. It eventually faltered amid partisan discord and the refusal of some witnesses to testify.

Rohrbaugh has also served as president of the Montgomery County Republican Club, which he has described in previous news articles as a "social club" with about 25 members.

Rohrbaugh was appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to succeed Stephen Montanarelli, who died in May 2004. During his four-year tenure, Rohrbaugh has expanded the Office of the State Prosecutor, doubling staff size and creating a computer forensic lab to aid in white-collar crime investigations.

He has also advocated for expanded subpoena rights for his office, which unlike grand juries or state's attorney's offices, does not have the ability to authorize its own subpoenas. Instead, staff members must drive to the jurisdiction in which they want to execute a subpoena and get a clerk of court or judge to authorize it, a process that can take hours, depending on the location.

"It is incredibly wasteful," said Steven Trostle, a former prosecutor in Rohrbaugh's office who is now in private practice.

After several years of failed attempts, Rohrbaugh persuaded legislators to change the law during the 2008 General Assembly. The new law goes into effect Oct. 1.

But even without subpoena power, the office has managed to pursue cases against some of Maryland's most prominent political players.

This month, developer Edward St. John, chief executive of St. John Properties Inc., was forced to pay $55,000 in civil fines after an investigation by Rohrbaugh's office turned up proof that he had encouraged his vice presidents to make political contributions for which they were later reimbursed.

Rohrbaugh has also investigated allegations of misconduct at the Baltimore liquor board, a state agency that oversees the city's liquor establishments, as well as a multimillion-dollar technology contract by the state Department of Human Resources. Neither inquiry led to indictments.

But Rohrbaugh did manage to win back more than $3 million in funds stolen from the Baltimore school system. In that case, he exposed the dealings of Gilbert Sapperstein, a longtime liquor license broker, video poker game distributor and former boiler company owner who pleaded guilty in 2005 to bribing a city schools employee in a scheme to pocket millions of dollars in fraudulent work invoices.

"That is definitely one of the high points of Bob's tenure so far," said Trostle, who was the lead prosecutor on the school system case, which netted more than $5 million in payback and forfeitures. He said he will never forget the day that he, with Rohrbaugh at his side, handed a multimillion-dollar check to then-schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland.

"That felt really good," Trostle said.

As the Dixon investigation has intensified, so have complaints that Rohrbaugh is motivated by politics. Dixon is a Democrat, and Rohrbaugh was appointed by Ehrlich, a Republican.

The state Democratic Party has been especially critical of the state prosecutor's attacks on the mayor.

"Rohrbaugh has sent some very disturbing signals in recent weeks," said David Paulson, communications director for the Maryland Democratic Party, which complained that the prosecutor went after St. John for his contributions to Democrats but not those he made to Ehrlich. Paulson said Democrats are watching the state prosecutor for signs that he is "stepping out of bounds."

"We are concerned," Paulson said. "This investigation [into Dixon] has been going on for years, and these questions have been asked and answered." Ehrlich, who appointed Rohrbaugh to a six-year term, said he has no influence over the prosecutor.

"I appointed the guy, and I don't believe I have talked to him since," Ehrlich told WMAR-TV last week. "I think [political favoritism] is not going to be a good angle here. And the facts will be the facts."

For watchdog groups, the state prosecutor is an ally in keeping government honest.

"In general, independence and oversight of authority is crucial in democracy," said Ryan R. O'Donnell, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a group that advocates for good government and democracy reforms. "That role is being fulfilled."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

Gerard P. Martin's name was misspelled when this article was published in the print edition. The Sun regrets the error.

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