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Republican race for Harford state's attorney heats up in final days

The Aegis

The race for the Republican Party’s nomination for Harford County State’s Attorney has turned heated as Tuesday’s primary election approaches.

Three of the four GOP candidates have traded barbs in recent weeks with fellow candidate David Ryden and the man all four are hoping to succeed, State’s Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly.

Ryden is a deputy to Cassilly, who is retiring this year after 36 years. Cassilly has endorsed Ryden as his successor.

Also vying for the GOP nomination are Lisa Marts, a former assistant under Cassilly; Albert Peisinger, a former prosecutor in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office; and Steven Trostle, a Joppa resident who is the interim state’s attorney in Cecil County.

The Republican winner will face Democrat Carlos Taylor, who does not have a primary opponent, in the Nov. 6 general election.

Trostle said he believes Marts and Peisinger and their supporters have conducted their campaigns decorously, but claims Ryden has not.

He has criticized Ryden for trying to lure votes within the law enforcement community through an email where Ryden wrote about “jamming up” suspects who disrespected police officers.

He also noted mailers from the Ryden campaign that criticize him and Marts for switching parties — though he acknowledged the claim is “fair.”

Ryden defended his campaign methods, which indeed have included mailers to voters noting how Marts and Trostle switched their party affiliations in October 2016.

He also posted online a campaign video about Peisinger’s supposed involvement in the prosecution of six Baltimore City Police officers in connection with the 2015 custody death of Freddie Gray that touched off days of rioting in the city.

Gray’s death after suffering a serious injury while in police custody in April 2015 touched off several days of unrest, and police from around the region — including Harford County Sheriff’s Office deputies — plus National Guard troops were sent to restore order.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby filed charges against the six officers, but all were either acquitted or the charges were dropped. The officers are described as “innocent” in the Ryden campaign video, which shows a photograph of Peisinger standing near Mosby as she announced charges against the officers at a May 1, 2015 news conference.

“The prosecution began on that date, when he stood proudly next to [Mosby] announcing the charges against those police officers,” Ryden said.

Peisinger, who spent more than 20 years with the Baltimore prosecutor’s office before retiring in October 2016, disputes Ryden’s charges. In an interview with The Aegis, he accused Ryden of being untruthful.

He said he worked with the police department team tasked with investigating use of force incidents by officers for about six-and-a-half weeks after Gray was injured. He later returned to his other prosecutorial duties.

“I had no decision making in that case, I was fact gathering,” Peisinger said.

He said he had been instructed to be present for Mosby’s news conference, and was part of a group of about 10 to 12 people from the State’s Attorney’s Office, but he did not make any statements.

Peisinger also said he was never involved in any court proceedings against the officers. Peisinger’s campaign Facebook page has a statement by Edward Nero, one of the indicted officers and a Harford County resident, stating that Peisinger “did not prosecute me of any of the other officers.”

In the statement, Nero said he does not endorse any of the candidates in the Harford state’s attorney’s race, but determined he should “clarify the record.”

“I, like every other Harford County resident, want the best candidate for State’s Attorney in office,” Nero said in the statement.

Ryden stands by his statement that Peisinger helped prosecute the officers, even if he was conducting an investigation and not appearing in court.

“When you as prosecutor, I as a prosecutor, go to work and start doing things that are for the purpose of charging someone with a crime, I am prosecuting,” he said.

Marts, a 23-year career prosecutor who resigned from the Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office in April 2017 and now works with the Baltimore City prosecutor’s office, compared the recent trading of barbs between Ryden and Peisinger to children fighting on the playground.

“I really find it simply embarrassing, and it’s why people don’t get into politics, truthfully,” Marts said.

Marts herself has been the focus of attacks by Cassilly, her former boss, and Ryden, her former colleague, regarding her work when she was with the State’s Attorney’s Office. Both have said her departure from the office was due to her handling of a domestic violence case.

She denies it, saying she had been shifted from her prior position as head of the office’s child abuse unit to the general felony rotation — working under Ryden’s supervision — which meant she was handling felony cases in Circuit Court every day as other prosecutors left the agency.

“We were bleeding experienced prosecutors, and it didn’t look like it was going to change anytime soon,” Marts said. Marts said she resigned after about three months on the felony rotation.

She said Ryden’s attack is “pretty immature and shows a lack of judgment on his part,” and aid she is running to create change.

“People just need to feel that they have an honest leader, someone that’s going to be honest and forthright with them. and that’s what I would bring back to the office,” Marts said.

Changing of the guard

Cassilly, one of the longest serving local prosecutors in the United States, won his first election as Harford’s state’s attorney in 1982. A disabled combat injured Army veteran of Vietnam, Cassilly has overseen an office that has grown over the past four decades, as has the county.

When he joined the office as an assistant prosecutor in 1977, the state’s attorney had a single deputy and a handful of assistant prosecutors, many of whom were part-time.

Today, the State’s Attorney’s Office has an annual budget of $6 million and 59 full time equivalent employees, according to Harford County budget documents, including 27 lawyers and another 30 paralegals and clerks and an office administrator, the latter with a $106,000 annual salary.

Cassilly’s salary is $117,818, as of fiscal 2018, according to the Maryland Association of Counties’ Report of County Employee Salaries, Health Benefits & Pensions.

Ryden, who has been with the prosecutor’s office since 2007, has been endorsed by the Harford County Deputy Sheriff’s Union and Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, a fellow Republican.

As the barbs have flown back and forth among the GOP candidates in recent weeks, Gahler posted on Facebook that he believes Ryden has “the skill, ability, knowledge and experience to be a great State’s Attorney for Harford County” but also wrote that he has “met and spoken with Mr. Peisinger and feel he possesses all the same strengths and attributes and, if successful, he will make a great State’s Attorney for us as well.”

The Bel Air Police Association and Harford County Municipal Lodge 128 of the Fraternal Order of Police have also endorsed Ryden.

Four years ago, the deputies’ union endorsed Trostle, who mounted a general election challenge against Cassilly.

‘Jam up’ controversy

The deputies’ union endorsement was actively sought by Ryden, who sent out an email in mid-March urging deputies to attend a fundraiser for his campaign.

The email, a copy which was obtained by The Aegis, reminded the police officers of his past practices, including taking their 2 a.m. phone calls, “taking your case away from another lukewarm prosecutor” and “going out of my way to jam up some guy who hit spit or hit you on the road.”

“I’m floored by that, as a lwayer as a citizen and as a career prosecutor,” Peisinger said of the “jam up” statement. “I think every officer should be treated with the utmost respect, but you don’t treat people differently and jam them up.”

Ryden acknowledged the email, and said it had been sent to “a handful of police officers who have been supportive of me.” Police supporters had been asking him about how they could support the campaign, such as through fundraisers or volunteering.

“‘Jam up’ is courthouse vernacular for going to jail, and the message is, if you assault a law enforcement officer in this county you’re going to go to jail,” Ryden said.

He cited the 2016 murders of Sheriff’s Office Senior Deputy Patrick Dailey and Deputy First Class Logsdon.

“After what happened in 2016 to Pat and Mark, I don’t think there’s anyone in this county who thinks that assaulting police officers is OK,” Ryden said.

he denied her departure was related to the domestic violence case had handled, one of the charges making the rounds during the campaign.

Campaign finance

Ryden has raised $74,500.61 and spent $49,582.49 since filing as a candidate in March 2017, according to reports his campaign filed with the Maryland State Board of Elections Jan. 15, May 22 and June 15.

Peisinger raised $91,565 and spent $45,251.68 between August of 2017 and June, according to reports filed Jan. 17, May 22 and June 15.

Marts raised $26,776 and spent $24,116.57 between August 2017 and June, according to reports filed Jan. 12, May 19 and June 15.

Trostle raised $4,392 and spent $2,958.59 between October 2017 and May, according to a report he filed May 22.

avought@theaegis.com

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