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Serious questions about Del. Vallario

Laws and LegislationJustice SystemEthicsU.S. House Committee on the Judiciary

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, is the frequent target of accusations that his public role and private interests conflict. That criticism usually boils down to a disagreement with his views on legislation and anger at his willingness to use his power to bottle up bills he doesn't like. But a complaint filed against him with the legislature's ethics committee is different; it centers on discussions about a piece of legislation that became law (in fact, one he voted for), and it deals specifically with the nature of his private law practice.

Mr. Vallario is a defense lawyer, and he has been an endless source of frustration to those who want stricter laws on drunken driving, domestic violence and any number of other matters of criminal justice. He leads a committee whose members have historically been very loyal to him and who have collectively developed something of a contrarian streak. Bills that pass the Senate overwhelmingly can die quiet deaths in Mr. Vallario's desk drawer. There are times when that's a good thing; Judiciary hears more than its share of tragic stories, and not all of them make the basis for good legislation. But there are also plenty of times when critics are left to wonder whether Mr. Vallario puts the interests of his clients (actual or potential) above the common good.

Often, those accusations can be dismissed as the kind of thing that is endemic to a citizen legislature. We expect our delegates and senators to have outside careers that enliven their understanding of the issues they face and only expect them to hold back when a proposed law would have a specific effect on them. Mr. Vallario's reluctance to accept laws that could make criminal defense work more difficult in general doesn't automatically rise to that standard.

However, a case reported recently by The Washington Post's John Wagner is different. It centers on a woman named Kenniss Henry, whose daughter, Natasha Pettigrew, was struck and killed by an SUV while she was riding her bicycle in Prince George's County in 2010. Ms. Henry was upset that Maryland's vehicular manslaughter statute afforded little chance that the driver, Christy Littleford, would face significant penalties, so she went to the legislature in 2011 to lobby for a stronger law to cover future such cases. Her lobbying effort brought her into the office of Mr. Vallario, who had previously opposed efforts to increase penalties for negligent drivers on the grounds that they would effectively criminalize accidents. According to Mr. Wagner's report, she told Mr. Vallario the heartbreaking details of her daughter's injury and her grief.

It was not until much later that she learned that Ms. Littleford was being represented by Joseph F. Vallario III, the delegate's son, who shares a law office with his father in Suitland. Ms. Henry complained to the ethics committee that Delegate Vallario could have told his son what she told him, potentially putting her case at risk.

Delegate Vallario told Mr. Wagner that he maintains a separate practice from his son and does not discuss cases with him. Moreover, it's worth noting that the legislation Ms. Henry sought — the creation of the crime of criminally negligent manslaughter by vehicle or vessel, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum three-year penalty — succeeded that year, though the credit goes mainly to House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who personally pushed the issue. Mr. Vallario abstained from voting on the bill in committee, as is his practice, but supported it on the House floor. And despite the younger Mr. Vallario's advocacy, Ms. Littleton was convicted under the laws that existed at the time and was sentenced to a year in prison.

Still, the case raises questions that bear investigation. Just how separate are the two men's law practices? What are the financial arrangements of their shared office space? What steps have they taken or should they take to ensure that the relationship produces neither actual impropriety nor the appearance of it? The legislature's joint ethics committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday, and it needs to give this matter serious consideration.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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