Behind-the-scenes political maneuvering over who should be the next Howard County state's attorney is raising concerns in the legal community as three of the county's five Circuit Court judges prepare to vote on the appointment.
County Executive Ken Ulman and newly appointed Circuit Judge Timothy J. McCrone, the former state's attorney, support juvenile division head Lara C. Weathersbee for the top prosecutor's job. McCrone told his staff he favors Weathersbee for his old job and urged them to back her, too. Ulman said he has spoken on Weathersbee's behalf to two of the judges who will vote on the choice.
Ulman said their interest is maintaining the office's smooth operation, but sources in the legal community fear for the independence of the office if there is too much political influence on the selection.
McCrone's backing of Weathersbee might have discouraged others in the office from applying, the sources said, which is another way of influencing the final selection.
Former Howard Del. Neil F. Quinter, a private attorney in Washington, and Weathersbee are the only publicly identified candidates, though on Monday the deadline for applications was pushed back to Feb. 15.
Sources in the legal community with close courthouse ties say McCrone, who has recused himself from the selection process, had first promised to back interim State's Attorney Dario Broccolino but switched allegiance.
McCrone declined to comment on that account, though he did not deny it, and Broccolino did not return a reporter's phone calls.
McCrone's motives are unclear, and some suspect political interference on behalf of Weathersbee, though Ulman asserts that his intervention was appropriate.
McCrone, a twice-elected Democrat, was so respected as state's attorney by members of both parties that he faced no opponent in 2006. He was appointed to a judgeship by Gov. Martin O'Malley and was sworn in Dec. 14. He is a candidate for a 15-year term this year, and again, has no opposition.
Fred "Chip" Coover, a Republican attorney who considered applying for the state's attorney's job, said he is a "great admirer" of McCrone, who "built a very fine office with a good reputation."
Broccolino was appointed interim state's attorney the day McCrone resigned, but he is not a candidate for the permanent position.
The Democrat was appointed deputy state's attorney in 1999 by former State's Attorney Marna McClendon, a Republican.
Weathersbee, who joined the Howard state's attorney's office in 1995, also is a Democrat, but with a wealth of political connections that help give credence to conspiracy theories.
Her father, Frank Weathersbee, has been Anne Arundel County state's attorney since 1988. Her husband, Sang Oh, was a top aide to former County Executive James N. Robey, now a state senator. Weathersbee and Oh are friends socially with the Ulmans, and Oh served as one of 13 members of the judicial selection commission that forwarded McCrone's name to O'Malley.
"I think the world of Lara," Ulman said. "I think people know that. She's built a tremendous record and has a lot of respect within the office and in the community."
Ulman said he feels she would continue the office's well-regarded operation, adding that he has not lobbied the judges on Weathersbee's behalf since McCrone's swearing-in.
"It's one thing if I was advocating for someone who was not in the office or had no respect in the community," Ulman said. "The fact is her father is a state's attorney in a neighboring jurisdiction. It's in her blood. I feel strongly I have separated that from any personal feelings. I think it's less politics than making sure there's continuity of leadership."
Ulman and McCrone said there is no connection between McCrone's elevation to a judgeship and their support of Weathersbee to become state's attorney.
Byron Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor, said he does not see Ulman's support as unethical.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with the county executive advocating for someone he feels will be a good state's attorney," Warnken said.
The support for Weathersbee has not discouraged Quinter, a Harvard law school graduate who was active on criminal issues in the General Assembly.
Weathersbee has prominent backers, but Quinter said he does, too.
Prince Georges County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey supports him, and Quinter has a recommendation as a "very good attorney" who is "qualified" from former Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
"Mr. Ivey does believe Mr. Quinter would do a good job," said Ramon Korionoff, Ivey's spokesman.
Quinter said he is not worried about politics.
"I don't want to look at it from a political perspective at this point," he said. "I'm applying on the merits of my own qualifications. I think the judges are pretty scrupulous about maintaining their independence."
Weathersbee confirmed that she is a candidate, and said she has great respect for McCrone's leadership. But she declined to comment further.
McCrone said he is staying out of it.
"I recused myself because immediately after being sworn in; I did confirm to reporters that I had expressed support for Lara," he said. "Because I did that after I was sworn in, it clearly indicates I have an opinion on the matter independent of the process."
McCrone formally recused himself in writing Jan. 3. Administrative Judge Diane O. Leasure, who is seeking a promotion to the Court of Special Appeals, also recused herself, explaining that she "knew that ... I'd need to talk to people to get political support. I did not want to be in a position where it could be perceived that the two things are tied together."
That leaves Judges Lenore R. Gelfman, Louis A. Becker III and Richard S. Bernhardt to make the decision.