Meet the former Maryland prosecutor who pursued Sheila Dixon, Linda Tripp — and Dallas Dance

When former Baltimore County school Superintendent Dallas Dance pleaded guilty to perjury last month in a Towson courtroom, two of the more attentive observers in the hushed public gallery were Thomas “Mike” McDonough and his wife, Donna.

As Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt recited the facts of the case against Dance, no one in the courtroom knew the details better than McDonough — the 65-year-old deputy state prosecutor who spearheaded the yearlong investigation but had retired a week earlier.

And few in attendance harbored more conflicting emotions than his wife: The retired county school teacher brimmed with pride to see her husband’s efforts come to fruition and seethed with anger to hear that her former boss had been paid by a firm he had helped win a school contract.

On Friday, as Dance faces a maximum sentence of 40 years for four counts of perjury, the McDonoughs — Baltimore County high school sweethearts married nearly 45 years — will be in Circuit Court again to watch the veteran prosecutor’s swan-song case cap off a career that has touched on every major public corruption case in Maryland over three decades.

“He is a great loss to the office,” Davitt said. “He has vast institutional knowledge from being here so long.”

Although governor-appointed state prosecutors such as Davitt — and Robert Rohrbaugh and Stephen Montanarelli before him — have come and gone, McDonough had served as a constant presence in the office since 1984. The Office of the Maryland State Prosecutor was established four decades ago to root out public corruption with a small staff and a tight budget.

In 2017 — with a nearly $1.5 million budget, four prosecutors and several investigators — the office charged 54 people after conducting 67 corruption and 388 election law investigations, state budget records show. The office cannot control the number of allegations referred to it by the offices of the governor, the attorney general, the General Assembly, the state Ethics Commission or state’s attorneys — resulting in far more investigations than charges. Still, past critics have complained that the office wastes years and millions of taxpayer dollars on baseless investigations.

The cases have spanned an array of mundane and complex criminal behavior committed by Democrats and Republicans, elected and appointed government officials alike: from a basic theft conviction against a down-and-out, 82-year-old former Chestertown councilwoman in 2015 to today’s complex case against the up-and-coming, 37-year-old Dance for lying about earning $147,000 in part-time jobs.

McDonough was known for a methodical, assembly-line approach to building a case. No surprise. His first adult job was working on the General Motors assembly line on Broening Highway where his father, now 90 years old, had worked for four decades.

At the time, the 25-year-old McDonough was married with two kids. He and Donna wed when they were 20, a couple of years after they met as high school seniors, she at Towson High School, he at Parkville. They worked together at a Shop & Save grocery store, bantering from her cash register position to his deli counter post.

Upon graduation from what is now Towson University with an English degree, McDonough tried to find work as a newspaper writer before joining his father at the plant. Five years on the assembly line made one thing clear: “I knew I didn’t want to do that all my life.”

So he started going to the University of Baltimore’s law school at night and eventually landed a job as a law clerk in the Baltimore County state’s attorney office. After graduating in 1982, he started there as an assistant state’s attorney. Two years later, when Montanarelli became the new state prosecutor — a position he would hold for 20 years — McDonough applied and landed a position.

One of the first high-profile victories came in 1994 when former Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean pleaded guilty to official misconduct for, among other things, steering a city lease to a building she co-owned.

The office also weathered criticism for some high-profile failures: Former state Sen. Larry Young was acquitted of bribery and tax evasion charges. The office also had to drop a case against Linda Tripp’s wiretapping of Clinton White House intern Monica Lewinsky when key evidence was ruled inadmissible.

“We had to bring Monica down to testify,” McDonough said. “We had to go over to the Sheraton [in Towson] and rent a room on a personal credit card. We didn’t want anyone to know she was coming in. We put her in a presidential suite. Kind of ironic.”

Two of the most recent high-profile victories were the convictions of former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, a Democrat, in 2009, and former Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican, in 2013.

McDonough said he would miss the investigative element of building a case and the serendipitous discoveries that can accompany thorough research. In Dixon’s case, an investigator spotted a receipt for a fur coat cleaning and happened to know the furrier. A call revealed that Dixon had received a fur from a powerful developer who was also her boyfriend.

But the three-year investigation that included a raid of Dixon’s home and the seizure of fur coats led the then-mayor’s lawyers to complain that prosecutors had displayed an “obsession” with Dixon that was unfair.

Not surprisingly, Dixon agrees.

“They have this list of targeted people,” Dixon said this week. “There’s a target on certain people. Where’s the motivation and who’s behind it? That’s the $65,000 question.”

McDonough said his motivation came from enforcing the law when power, as the adage goes, led officials to think they could get away with unlawful behavior.

“It’s the power that gets them,” he said.

After Friday, McDonough said he would be happy to turn toward pursuing photography, mandolin and three grandchildren.

His wife, Donna, had never attended the hearings involving his cases. But having met and liked Dance as superintendent, she wanted to see the impact of her husband’s work.

She was infuriated to learn that Dance had blamed money woes from a divorce for his decision to work for a company that held a district contract. Dance was paid an annual salary of $287,000 and made tens of thousands of dollars more as a part-time consultant.

“You have all these teachers working to make ends meet, working second jobs, and other people in the school system working so hard to educate kids and who get so little for it,” she said. “And [Dance] complaining about his mega salary? It turned my stomach.”

She was proud that her husband held Dance accountable.

“I’ve been very proud of him for a long time,” she said.

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