Special prosecutor emerging as option on conflict cases

In the case involving an altercation last week between Baltimore Clerk of Circuit Court Frank M. Conaway Sr. and a blogger, State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein has said his office won't make the decision on whether to file criminal charges or handle any ensuing court proceedings.

That responsibility will instead fall to Steven I. Kroll, a former Baltimore County prosecutor who now works as a coordinator for Maryland's association of state's attorneys. In recent months, Kroll's position has evolved from one that deals with ethics and training issues, to also serving as a special outside counsel for cases in which prosecutors say their offices have a potential conflict of interest.

Kroll will be sworn in, review the case, and, if he determines charges should be filed, will handle the proceedings.

Traditionally, prosecutors often tap neighbors in other jurisdictions to take on the cases in which there's a possible conflict of interest. Eventually, they repay the favor.

But, with prosecutors faced with tightening budgets and a reluctance to ask others to add to their burden, Kroll has presented an alternative. He receives no additional pay for taking on these cases, and makes decisions independently of any prosecutor's office, instead drawing on his 26 years as a Baltimore County prosecutor.

Kroll did not respond to requests for comment, but those who have worked with him say he was eager to return to the courtroom.

"Steven Kroll was a great option," said Wicomico County State's Attorney Matthew Maciardello, who asked Kroll to handle a case involving a supporter of his campaign. "He's ready, willing and able to come down, and nobody can question his integrity or his motives."

Bernstein has asked Kroll to investigate the case involving Conaway and blogger Adam Meister, who clashed outside Conaway's home on Nov. 21. According to police, Conaway was carrying a firearm with an expired concealed-carry permit, while Meister allegedly tried to kick Conaway. Meister was sued for $21 million by Conaway's daughter after writing about property-tax credits she was receiving, while Conaway says Meister is harassing him.

"Given Mr. Conaway's position with the Court in which our Office conducts its business, we have taken this step to avoid any conflict of interest or the appearance thereof," Bernstein said last week through a spokesman.

Dario Broccolino, the state's attorney for Howard County and president of the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association, said it is not unprecedented for the association's coordinator to take on such cases — Broccolino himself held the title from 1988 to 1999 and said he handled conflict cases in "five or six" counties.

Still, it was rare enough that the association sought an opinion from Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler in September, seeking clarification on whether Kroll could prosecute cases. He got the thumbs up.

"A lot of it depends on the personality of the coordinator," Broccolino said. "One of the things I didn't like about the job as a coordinator is that it took me out of the courtroom. He's willing to do it, and we can take advantage of his willingness to do that."

Broccolino said he deliberates on requests for Kroll's services — "We don't want Steve jumping all over the state," he said. According to court records, Kroll has been doing just that.

In Wicomico County, he is handling a case involving a former county council candidate charged with drug possession and drunk driving. Maciardello said the candidate's wife was a supporter of his campaign for state's attorney, and he felt that Eastern Shore politics were too close to ask another local state's attorney to take on the case.

"We've run into problems where we secured a special prosecutor [from another county], but then come to find out it's overly burdening the office. We've then had to then find another prosecutor," Maciardello said. "Every one of us is dealing with budgets. … We know what we're going through, and you can only imagine what [others are] going through."

In Somerset County, Kroll was appointed to prosecute a District Court commissioner, Deborah Barkley, charged with accessing sensitive case information about her daughter's criminal case. Those charges were recently placed on the inactive docket, though Kroll is listed as the attorney handling the daughter's attempted-murder trial.

Looking into the Conaway-Meister feud won't be Kroll's first case in Baltimore, either: Earlier this year, he handled charges against a man who threatened to kill an assistant state's attorney, as well as a local attorney who threatened to kill Bernstein himself.

In the first case, a 22-year-old man named Shaun Johnson was accused of threatening to kill Assistant State's Attorney Tracy Varda, distraught over the fact that she was prosecuting his girlfriend for setting fire to their apartment. Johnson was listed as the victim in the case, but they shared a daughter together and he did not want to see her imprisoned for the crime, records show.

Johnson, who according to court papers was abused by his mother and lived on the streets, repeatedly called Varda and told her that she was "taking my family from me, and that's all I have." He made numerous threats, telling her to watch out and that he "knew people."

Both ended up receiving substantial time, records show: Garcia pleaded guilty to the arson and received 15 years; Johnson pleaded guilty to making threats and received five years in prison.

While prosecutors praise Kroll's work, it seems defense attorneys have had good experiences as well.

Johnson's attorney, public defender Robert Durkin, recently informed Kroll that he would be seeking a sentence modification in a note tucked into the court file that concludes: "It was a pleasure working with you on this case and I wish the best to you."


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