Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is calling for a congressional investigation of Maryland's top federal prosecutor, saying she improperly blocked the nation's gun police from helping enforce a program that could reduce Baltimore's staggering homicide rate.
Ehrlich has asked House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde to launch a full investigation of U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia's actions.
The request sharply raises the stakes in what already was a brewing political feud over gun-crime prosecutions, and Ehrlich said yesterday he is "not going away."
Battaglia was not available yesterday to comment. But her top deputy called Ehrlich's request for an investigation unwarranted.
He said Battaglia's office has not concealed any statistics about Project Disarm and has not excluded Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents from the program, designed to put felons caught carrying guns in jail.
"The data is open for anyone to see, and if you did look at it, I'd think you'd find the statistics are somewhat remarkable," First Assistant Stephen M. Schenning said, pointing to an increase in the number of federal indictments for gun crimes.
Ehrlich, a Baltimore County Republican, said in an interview yesterday that more indictments are a hollow success when Baltimore's homicide rate continues to climb.
This year, 163 people have been killed in the city - ahead of the 142 killed by this time last year - a number that federal officials hope programs targeting gun crimes could reduce.
"Other major cities are safer," Ehrlich said. "Baltimore is not."
It was unclear yesterday what action Ehrlich's letter on Tuesday to Hyde, an Illinois Republican, might prompt.
A spokesman for the committee did not respond to a request for comment.
Congress is on a tight schedule this year as members try to finish their work to leave Washington for the political conventions and for fall presidential campaigning.
By itself, Ehrlich's letter escalates his running debate with Battaglia, a Clinton appointee, over the role the federal court system should play in cracking down on gun crimes and helping reduce the city's homicide rate, which has reached at least 300 each year for a decade.
Ehrlich made a similar move June 27 when he asked the Justice Department to overrule Battaglia's decision in June to exclude ATF agents from reviewing which state gun cases from Baltimore should be tried in federal court, where violators can face harsher penalties.
In a letter to Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, Ehrlich charged then that Battaglia cut ATF agents out of the screening process as retaliation after the bureau's Baltimore office provided the congressman with statistics that Battaglia thought underrepresented Project Disarm's success.
Battaglia has said she decided to use attorneys from her office to review the gun cases to make the screening process more efficient.
ATF officials have said they were unhappy with the move, but Schenning yesterday said the agents remain a "crucial part" of preparing cases for trial.
Justice officials have not responded to Ehrlich's June 27 letter. So he said he decided to raise the same concerns with Hyde, arguing that ATF agents should be involved from the first step of determining which gun cases would be best prosecuted in federal court, as they have been since the program started in 1994.
Under Battaglia, Maryland's U.S. attorney's office implemented Project Disarm to get long prison sentences for felons caught with guns who might slip through cracks in the state court system. Project Disarm is similar to federal programs in at least 35 other cities.
Since it started, the Baltimore program has steadily increased its caseload. Last year, 100 people were indicted under the program, 70 percent more than the previous year.
The average sentence for those convicted was slightly more than seven years in the federal prison system.
This year, the program has indicted about 100 people.
Some critics say Maryland's federal courts could be doing more.
Ehrlich frequently points to a slightly different federal program called Project Exile, which is credited with reducing the homicide rate in Richmond, Va., by 30 percent from 1997 to 1998.
Underlying the debate is politics. Some speculate that Battaglia, who will leave office after this year's presidential elections, will seek a judicial appointment.
Ehrlich is often mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate.
Both want to be seen as having aggressive, effective crime-control plans, though Ehrlich downplayed the political aspect yesterday.
"This is not about Ehrlich or Battaglia or the court of appeals or future elections," he said.
In his letter to Hyde, Ehrlich wrote that it is "unconscionable that the premier federal firearm law enforcement agency would be removed from the screening process, thereby forcing federal law enforcement agencies to operate in an intelligence vacuum."
"I don't want a lot," Ehrlich said yesterday. "I just want the ATF to do the job they want to do and are paid to do."
Assistant U.S. Attorney John F. Purcell, who coordinates Project Disarm cases in Battaglia's office, yesterday said Ehrlich's criticisms seem to ignore the program's successes: "How can you criticize doing more, better and faster?"