Vallario stands in way of witness-protection bill

Sun Staff

He shuffles into his seat near the back of the House of Delegates chamber, a quiet, eccentric man, occasionally rising to explain a bill in his gravelly, barely comprehensible voice.

Low-profile, he may appear, but Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, is single-handedly holding up Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s witness-protection initiative.

"Chairman Vallario, it appears at this point, is not willing to enter into an agreement," said Ehrlich in a phone interview yesterday, adding that he believes an amended version of the bill could easily pass the committee -- and full House -- if Vallario would let the committee vote.

"If he thought he could kill the bill, he would have called the vote already," added Ehrlich. "This hampers hundreds, thousands of prosecutions around the state of Maryland. Our state prosecutors need this tool now."

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who will be in Annapolis again today to lobby for the bill, called it "shocking" that "one individual" could "silence the voices of the delegates."

Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat, would say only that "we're working on it" when asked this week about the witness-intimidation legislation.

"If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all," the 68-year-old added when told about statements blaming him for stalling the legislation.

With nearly three decades of experience in the chamber, 12 as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Vallario is considered among the most powerful lawmakers in Annapolis. He is gruff and skeptical at hearings, frequently grilling witnesses as the defense attorney he is -- or cutting them off. "He is the most influential person in the state in terms of shaping the criminal laws of the state of Maryland," said Douglas F. Gansler, Montgomery County state's attorney.

As chairman, Vallario is the arbiter of what bills come up for a vote in his committee, a power that he wields to his advantage.

It is a power once synonymous with a former senator and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Commission, Walter M. Baker, who was famous for keeping bills he opposed tucked in his desk drawer.

Under Vallario's chairmanship, the Judiciary Committee has killed bills to restrict the power of judges to change imposed sentences. For years, Vallario killed legislation to lower the legal limit of alcohol to determine when someone is driving drunk, until federal funding was at risk.

Now, for the second consecutive year, Vallario appears to be allowing Ehrlich's legislation, which seeks to curb witness intimidation, to die a slow death in his committee.

Already passed by the Senate, the bill would increase penalties for witness intimidation and allow some out-of-court statements by witnesses to be used as evidence at trials, commonly referred to as a hearsay exception.

It is the hearsay exception to which some criminal defense attorneys -- including Vallario -- object. Critics say it infringes on a person's constitutional right to confront an accuser.

In an effort to break the logjam, Ehrlich said he is calling on House Speaker Michael E. Busch to intervene and ask Vallario to put the bill up for a vote.

If the bill does not pass, Ehrlich said he will take the unusual step of asking the U.S. attorney to prosecute some witness-intimidation cases.

"If our state prosecutors are going to be hampered because one person in the House Judiciary ... will not allow for the majority" of committee members to vote, "then you have to go to extraordinary measures," said Ehrlich.

Committee members say Vallario objects even to the compromise amendments crafted by Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons with the governor's staff, though the amended bill likely would pass through the committee if it were put up for a vote.

"I doubt that it will go to a vote at this point," said Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat and member of the committee. Described by Annapolis insiders as a throwback to another era, Vallario is a rough-and-tumble defense attorney whose propensity is to stick with the status quo.

"He opposes change that would make the criminal justice system more effective and more responsive," said Charles County State's Attorney Leonard C. Collins Jr.

But Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Democrat representing Anne Arundel and Prince George's County who worked as Vallario's legislative aide and in his law firm, said Vallario is methodical and careful about changes to criminal law.

"He wants to make sure there are real good reasons, and if he's not convinced there are good reasons then he's not going to endorse a law," said Giannetti, who served on the House Judiciary Committee with Vallario as a delegate.

As a chairman, Vallario inspires respect from members of a committee known for its late-night voting sessions and fierce debates on contentious issues.

"The man is as immovable as a tree," said Del. Kevin Kelly, a Western Maryland Democrat. "I totally disagree with him on this particular legislation. But there are other bills that I'm glad he does keep in his desk."

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