City state's attorney candidate understands crime

Standing before television cameras and reporters on 26th Street on a steamy summer day, Gregg Bernstein displays a strong command of campaign skills in his first bid for elected office.

He was a late entry in the contest against Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who has held the job for 15 years. But he's got the art of the news conference down. The checklist: slick suit, media handlers and provocative statements.

He has called everyone there to blame Jessamy for one of the city's senseless murders, the high-profile killing of a young Johns Hopkins researcher, Stephen Pitcairn, allegedly at the hands of a career criminal.

"If the state's attorney had done her job … Stephen Pitcairn might still be alive today," Bernstein said.

It's the kind of claim that has garnered significant attention as Tuesday's Democratic primary nears, both from fans and those who think he bends the truth to fit his needs.

Bernstein, 55, was a federal prosecutor for four years — from 1987 to 1991 — and a private practice lawyer for a quarter-century, yet he leads heavily with the prosecutor part when describing his qualifications. He frequently cites poor conviction rates for Jessamy's office, though he uses figures from a study that many consider flawed. And a recent attack ad against Jessamy, claiming she puts violent criminals back on the streets, said the information came from The Baltimore Sun, not mentioning that it was contained in an opinion piece written by a radio host.

Bernstein's public face stands in sharp contrast to Jessamy's, who as a prosecutor rarely speaks to the news media and almost never summons them.

The Bernstein who has appeared on the campaign trail is a polished professional who carefully calculates his words, projecting the exact image of the high-profile defense attorney he wanted to be.

But voters are just learning about how he got there, or who the person is behind the persona.

And even fewer know of his family skeletons that he reluctantly talks about: His father drank, a brother used drugs and his youngest son was recently convicted on a felony drug charge for dealing cocaine. There's also the uncomfortable fact that his former wife works as a prosecutor under Jessamy.

Bernstein is unfazed by the scrutiny. He's approaching the state's attorney's race like everything else in his life: something to be won.

"In Gregg's case, it was a big step from where he came from to go become a professional," remembers law school classmate Sanford Cardin. "There was something about it, it was very American Dreamish."

Lessons of childhood

Bernstein was born in Baltimore on July 9,1955, and raised in Pikesville's Sudbrook Park neighborhood. He's the oldest of four children, each three years apart in age.

His parents met at Hutzler's Department Store, where his mother sold shoes and his father managed merchandise.

From his mother, Bernstein inherited vigor and a taste for politics: She put him to work at a young age for Democratic candidates she supported. From his father, he got a love of reading — Faulkner in particular — and sports. His dad played basketball as a young man and tennis later, which Bernstein adopted in that order.

And from his religion, Judaism, Bernstein said he learned the importance of public service.

He attended public school, first Bedford Elementary, then Sudbrook Junior High, followed by Milford Mill High School, where he was the captain of the basketball team — class of '73 — a popular jock who had a long-term girlfriend.

He proudly ticks off a list of incongruous jobs, beginning in middle school mowing lawns and setting up summer carnivals, which he credits with giving him the "ability to relate and interact with people of all walks."

In the Bernstein home, "if you wanted spending money, if you wanted to buy things for yourself … you worked," Bernstein said. "I've been working pretty much since I was 13 years old."

And he's been on his own since he was 17.

His father lost his job — or quit, Bernstein can't remember — and packed up the family for a move to a new position in Peoria, Ill. Bernstein stayed behind to close up the house, he said, and then left for college at the University of Maryland.

"From the time I graduated from high school, I've been pretty much fending for myself," he said. "I paid my way through college, through law school. I've been completely self-sufficient since I was 17."

Bernstein's parents separated a few years after moving to Illinois, though they never divorced.

His mother took the younger kids west, driving until she ran out of road in Carmel, Calif. She still lives there.

His father, a heavy drinker, moved to his home state of New York. There, Bernstein said, his "alcohol issues" worsened. He died of cancer in 1990.

Bernstein doesn't use the word alcoholic when talking about his father. The man just spent the better part of most evenings drinking, Bernstein said. It was as much a part of him as his weekend tennis routine.

And a brother would later develop a drug problem.

He avoided those fates, he said, partly out of happenstance. When he arrived at Maryland in 1973, campus housing was in short supply, and out-of-state students were given preference. So Bernstein never made it into the dorms, instead moving in with two older students who had already gotten partying out of their systems and settled into good study habits.

"It was probably, I think, one of the best nondecisions I ever made," he said.

Bernstein made it into the English honors program, studying early 20th-century American literature: Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner, whose 1930 novel "As I Lay Dying," about a family's pilgrimage to bury its matriarch, was the basis for Bernstein's thesis.

"He was very self-possessed," remembers Charles Rutherford, who was then the associate chair of the English department.

Back then, Bernstein thought his future was in literature.

"I had designs about getting my master's and my PhD and wearing the tweed jacket and smoking the pipe and the whole nine yards," he said. But Rutherford unintentionally dissuaded him, warning that the competitive field was hard to break into.

"So I said, 'OK, then, I better go to law school,' " Bernstein said.

Courtroom drama

The drama of life as a trial attorney intrigued Bernstein. It closely matched the athletic world, where there's a winner and a loser at the end of the day.

He took a year off after graduating from college in 1977, to earn tuition money, then enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Law, where he met Sanford Cardin, a second cousin to Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin.

"I remember him being a hard worker in law school," Cardin said. "He always seemed to have some sort of sense of purpose, and the purpose always seemed to be something larger than just his own life."

Bernstein got his law degree in 1981 and clerked for Elsbeth Bothe, a judge in Baltimore Circuit Court who has since retired.

As part of his application process, Bothe asked Bernstein to write a sample opinion.

"He came back with a beautiful one the very next day," Bothe said. "I take longer than that myself." Their relationship has grown personal over the years, and Bothe thinks of him as a godson. They're in touch regularly, and she has made him the executor of her will.

"His integrity is 100 percent," she said. "I trust him fully, which I don't say about a lot of lawyers."

In 1985, Bothe presided over his first wedding to Theresa Shaffer, now an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore. The couple had two sons: Andrew, now 22, and Owen, 20. They separated in 1998 and divorced in 2001.

Bernstein met Shaffer in law school and was working for the Baltimore firm Melnicove, Kaufman, Weiner, Smouse and Garbis by the time they married. He grabbed every case he could get his hands on at the firm, from simple drug possession cases to DWIs, he said.

In 1987, Bernstein joined the Maryland U.S. attorney's office and began prosecuting drug crimes and violent crimes — a couple accused of killing their infant, an accountant who plotted to kill an Internal Revenue Service agent. He gradually took on more sophisticated cases involving financial fraud and organized crime.

He left the office in 1991 to return to private practice and within a few years started his own firm with former Melnicove colleagues, including Paula Junghans, who has known Bernstein since the mid-1980s.

She describes him as a "very capable, confident, straight-ahead" guy, who's "not foolhardy, but daring." He was willing to learn how to ski well after the age of 40, she said, but not reckless enough to "go flying off a cliff."

Bernstein has become known through his high-profile clients. He represented former state Sen. Larry Young in 1999, when a jury acquitted the Baltimore Democrat of bribery and tax evasion charges. He now represents state Sen. Ulysses Currie in a campaign finance investigation. (Currie, from Prince George's County, has other lawyers handling his recent federal indictment on bribery and extortion charges).

Junghans, like many who know Bernstein well, is perplexed by his choice to run for state's attorney, though she supports him and plans to work the polls in a three-way primary that also includes Sheryl A. Lansey, a 63-year-old attorney.

"It is a financial sacrifice," she said.

Both Junghans and Bernstein now work for a well-known firm with a national name: Zuckerman Spaeder. She works out of the D.C. office, while Bernstein works in Baltimore, where he's well compensated.

Bernstein declined to give his salary, but his divorce records show that a decade ago, before he joined the Zuckerman firm, he was making $265,000 — about $40,000 more than the state's attorney's paycheck.

James Wyda is Maryland's federal public defender, and he knows Bernstein as one of a handful of private lawyers certified to defend indigent federal defendants, a form of public service.

"Gregg's career in private practice has been a rocket to success, and, at the same time, he's constantly looking for ways to give back to the community," Wyda said, citing the bid for state's attorney as another example.

As he pursues the office, however, some Jessamy supporters charge that his rhetoric is misleading the community.

"He is misrepresenting the facts," said Larry Gibson, a former political strategist who teaches election law at the University of Maryland School of Law and has appointed himself an unofficial Jessamy spokesman because of his dislike of Bernstein.

Family life

Sitting in his Roland Park living room on a recent Friday, Bernstein says his wife of seven years, Sheryl Goldstein, has always been the "do-gooder" in the family, setting an example for him to follow.

She worked for a nonprofit legal reform think tank in New York and helped develop law programs in Kosovo. Because of her husband's campaign, she has taken a leave of absence from her position as director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice.

They met years ago in the U.S. attorney's office, when Goldstein was an intern and Bernstein a prosecutor. Their paths crossed several times through the years. She, too, would marry and divorce before they ultimately got together after his separation, marrying in 2003.

They spent many nights discussing whether he would run and what that would mean for their future and their finances. On a bicycle trip this May, pedaling miles across the Czech Republic, Bernstein decided to go for it.

"I personally have a great deal of respect for him putting himself out there," said Goldstein, 44. "It's a really hard and courageous thing to do."

She understands that the political spotlight often illuminates the personal, and she urges her husband to talk about his son's drug conviction in Baltimore County.

"Owen also has struggled with alcohol, but he's doing better, you know. He has a problem," Bernstein said.

According to police documents, Owen Bernstein, who turns 21 next month, was drunk in the early morning hours of Dec. 19, 2008. He allegedly threatened a woman with a knife over missing cocaine, forced his way into a house and assaulted another man who tried to throw him out. Police recovered $735 in cash from Owen's car, a scale and two large cellophane baggies containing more than 11 grams of what appeared to be cocaine.

Burglary and assault charges against him were dropped, though he was convicted in December 2009 of drug possession with the intent to distribute. He was given a suspended, two-year sentence, ordered to undergo a six-month-long drug treatment program in Florida and to spend 18 months on probation.

He was then charged in May with having an open container on city property in Wicomico County, which could have serious consequences if it's found to have violated his probation terms. A hearing is scheduled for next month.

"I'm really cognizant of … the impact a felony conviction can have on a young person in terms of education, job opportunities," Bernstein said. "As state's attorney, you've got to recognize the power that you have, and you've got to be extremely careful about how you wield it."

He calls Jessamy a "nice woman," but ineffective.

"She is not an effective manager of that office," he said, "and I think that it shows in the results."

He's campaigning on the claim that Jessamy's office has a conviction rate of less than 50 percent, and attributes that to her focus on community programs over fighting crime.

"She's never been in a courtroom in her 15 years as state's attorney," Bernstein said, quoting from his own campaign material.

He plans to try cases alongside his assistants if he wins.

"I just want to get in there and make it a more efficient and effective office," he said. "I want it to be run like a well-run law firm."

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