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Dan Rodricks: Steve Sachs had integrity in his bones | COMMENTARY

In 2008, former Maryland Attorney General Steve Sachs authored a review of Maryland State Police surveillance practices at the request of then-Gov. Martin O'Malley, left.
In 2008, former Maryland Attorney General Steve Sachs authored a review of Maryland State Police surveillance practices at the request of then-Gov. Martin O'Malley, left. (BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR / Baltimore Sun)

I don’t know where he got it — from his parents, his teachers, his rabbis, his wife — but Steve Sachs had that thing called integrity in his bones. He was once a tough federal prosecutor in Baltimore and later Maryland’s hard-driving attorney general. All through those years, the Sachs I knew — and the Sachs known to men and women who worked with him and against him — had that thing called integrity.

That means — because these days integrity seems as rare as a Trump-defying Republican — that Sachs was honest and fair, that he cherished truth and justice, that he could be counted upon to do the right thing. (For further enlightenment on integrity, refer to “Scent of a Woman” and the soliloquy of Al Pacino’s Frank Slade as he defends Chris O’Donnell’s Charlie.)

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Sachs, who died Wednesday at age 87, was affable, charming, astute in legal matters, progressive in his politics and had a challenging intellect. He was well read and given to quoting philosophers and poets. He was an eager student of history and blessed with a prodigious memory for names, events, court cases and great phrases from literature. His quick wit could be withering, disarming or fully self-aware. Years ago, during an argument, a frustrated employee called him an egomaniac. Sachs smiled benignly and replied, “Why deny the obvious?”

He came of age as a young attorney in the early 1960s, during the Kennedy administration, before the term “best and brightest” became associated ironically with the failed policies of the Vietnam War. Sachs served as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Baltimore, his hometown, then as the top federal prosecutor here. In addition to bank robbers, his office pursued corrupt politicians and labor leaders with ties to organized crime. Sachs became something of a legend in a relatively short period.

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I met him years later, in 1978, when he emerged from private practice to run for office. At the time, Maryland voters were looking for leaders with integrity after a rash of corruption cases involving two county executives, a governor and a former governor. Sachs became attorney general and the honorable Harry Hughes became governor. In different ways — Hughes with honest stewardship, Sachs with brilliant activism — they helped build public trust in government.

Sachs energized a sleepy office that had done little to root out the corruption in the state. He hired bright, equally dedicated attorneys to battle on behalf of Marylanders. There was an air of righteousness about Sachs; he saw himself as a defender of consumers against the greedy practices of credit card companies and banks. His office went after environmental polluters and the villains behind the 1985 savings and loan scandal.

That should have set him up nicely for a run for governor in 1986. But the popular mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer, stepped into the race. He and his backers believed Sachs to be personally responsible for an anti-business climate in Maryland. Schaefer also criticized Sachs for his proposal to increase funding for public education by raising the state sales tax by a penny, to six cents. Imagine the audacity of that!

Clearly, Sachs was up against a powerful political figure, though one who didn’t seem to desire the governorship as much as he did.

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In fact, years later, Schaefer told me that he would have preferred to stay in City Hall. “I wouldn’t have run for governor except that it was my turn and it was time to go,” he said. “But that wasn’t a happy day.”

He called Sachs “a brilliant, brilliant man, so much smarter than I was.” But timing is everything in comedy, love and politics, and Schaefer went on to dominate the Democratic primary and serve two terms as governor.

“Steve said that Schaefer was the unhappiest winner he’d ever known, always complaining about what a terrible time he’d had as governor,” says Neil A. Grauer, the journalist and author who handled press relations for Sachs during his time as attorney general. “Years after their primary contest, Schaefer would see Sachs and say, more or less, ‘You’re so lucky you didn’t win. Being governor was horrible.’ Schaefer loved being the ‘do-it-now’ mayor. He didn’t always get his way as governor.”

Sachs returned to private law practice, enjoying the high opinion of his peers in both the District of Columbia and Maryland. “Steve Sachs was one of the most respected public servants in Maryland’s history and a personal mentor to me and many others,” Erek Barron, the current U.S. Attorney in Baltimore, said this week. “His commitment to the rule of law and passion for justice are legendary and continued to his passing.”

In recent years, Sachs corresponded with me, often commenting on current events or telling humorous stories from his days as a trial attorney. I once asked him about his appearance as attorney general before the Supreme Court in 1979, in a case known as Smith v. Maryland. Opposing Sachs that day in arguments was Baltimore attorney Howard Cardin. Sachs’ parents, along with Cardin’s father, were in attendance. “Yes,” Sachs said, “it was like a bar mitzvah.”

But Sachs was absolutely serious about the Constitution, the independence of prosecutors and the adversarial system of criminal justice. In our last meeting, he expressed outrage at the appalling politicization of the Department of Justice during the Trump administration. Sachs was a little unsteady on his feet that day, but his mind was still sharp, and integrity still in his bones.

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