When politicians go bad

Maryland's constitution calls for the removal from office of any elected official, state or local, who is convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors. That would seem simple enough, but we have, sadly, at least three examples from recent years in which Article XV didn't quite work out the way one might hope. Despite being found guilty by a jury or pleading guilty in court, former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, former Prince George's County Councilwoman Leslie Johnson and former Anne Arundel County Councilman Daryl Jones managed, at least for a time, to hold onto office while under the darkest of legal clouds. The former two eventually resigned (Ms. Dixon as part of a plea deal and Ms. Johnson under tremendous political pressure), and Mr. Jones was removed from office by his peers, though he is challenging the legality of that action.

Del. Jolene Ivey, a Prince George's County Democrat, is seeking to make the law stricter through a constitutional amendment, and she's getting a great deal of support for the idea in Annapolis. Her argument is that allowing these situations to drag out for months while elected officials are under a legal cloud robs their constituents of effective representation. She has 85 co-sponsors in the House — enough, if all of them vote for the measure, to meet the three-fifths requirement to send a constitutional amendment to voters. A companion measure just introduced in the Senate by Victor Ramirez, also a Prince George's Democrat, has enough co-sponsors to meet the threshold in that chamber as well.

The legislation would be a step in the right direction, but it doesn't go quite far enough. It would deal with a case like Ms. Johnson's, but its effect on the other recent instances of officials hanging on to office in spite of guilty pleas or verdicts is, at best, unclear.

Under current law, an elected official who pleads no contest or is convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors is automatically suspended from office, pending appeals. Whatever body has the power to replace that official can then do so on a temporary basis. If the appeals are unsuccessful, he or she is permanently removed. If the official wins on appeal, he or she is reinstated for the remainder of the term.

Delegate Ivey's bill does away with the suspension step and adds that an official who pleads guilty must also forfeit office. That would cover the Leslie Johnson situation.

But it doesn't appear to cover the Dixon scenario. Under an opinion from the Attorney General's Office, a person is considered to be "convicted" at the point of sentencing, not at the moment when a jury proclaims him or her guilty. The reason for this is that, in rare circumstances, a judge may decide that — the jury's decision notwithstanding — the prosecution failed to prove its case and, thus, order a new trial or overturn the verdict. The upshot in Ms. Dixon's case was that she remained in office for a two-month period between the conclusion of her trial and her sentencing, only permanently leaving office under a plea deal.

The amendment also doesn't cover the situation of Mr. Jones. He pleaded guilty in August of failing to file tax returns during a six-year period, and in November he was sentenced to five months in federal prison. But it was a misdemeanor, and not the kind that triggers the removal provision in the constitution because it was not related to his official duties. Thus, an elected official could actually serve time in jail while remaining in office — and the Arundel council's efforts notwithstanding, Mr. Jones might wind up doing so because the mechanism his colleagues used to remove him is untested and not designed for use in these circumstances.

A few amendments could make the proposal stronger. One could broaden the scope of misdemeanors that trigger removal from office to include those that result in prison sentences, regardless of whether the crime is related to the official's duties. Another could retain the concept of an official being suspended from office but apply it to the period between a guilty verdict and sentencing.

That introduces the possibility that someone could be unfairly suspended from office for a short period of time. But Delegate Ivey's response is spot on: "What's more important, being fair to this one person and their right to a job, or the people's right to effective representation?" An elected official can't effectively serve his or her constituents while waiting for sentencing or sitting in jail, and this proposal should be amended to cover those situations and sent to the voters for their approval in November.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading