Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler is proposing to eliminate the state prosecutor's office, the independent agency that secured a string of high-profile political convictions in recent years.
Gansler, a Democrat running for governor, called the office "a holdover from the Watergate era" that overlaps with other law enforcement offices and said scrapping it would save taxpayers as much as $1.2 million a year.
But others called the proposal cause for concern, saying the agency's independence puts it in a unique position to prosecute government or electoral wrong-doing.
"It's really important to have an independent body that can stand up ... and take an enforcement role," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland. "It would be very concerning to us to take this step."
The office brought the charges that led to the successful prosecution of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon for embezzlement, Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold for misconduct in office, and political strategist Julius Henson for conspiracy to violate election law.
Gansler offered his proposal as part of a broader plan to spend less money and make government more efficient. He said the office of the state prosecutor shares jurisdiction over corruption and voter fraud cases with the attorney general's office, the U.S. attorney's office and local state's attorneys. Special steps could be taken if it weren't appropriate for one of those offices to handle a case, he said.
"If a need arises for a special prosecutor, for instance to avoid conflict of interest, one can be temporarily appointed, as Congress does now," Gansler said in a detailed, 16-page plan on how he would streamline state spending if he were elected governor.
The state prosecutor's office was created in the mid-1970s as a wave of corruption swept Maryland, including cases against former governor Spiro Agnew and Gov. Marvin Mandel. Today, the office has a small staff of attorneys and investigators. The prosecutor, appointed by the governor, serves a six-year term, during which he cannot be removed from office without a finding of misconduct or failure to perform the duties of the office.
State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Thomas M. McDonough, the deputy state prosecutor, said the office's independence sets it apart from other prosecutors. "That's the whole reason the office was created," McDonough said. "We're independent, and that's what makes us worth the money."
Gansler's proposal also drew criticism from two Republican candidates for governor.
"Clearly, now is not the time to take away the one office tasked with fighting corruption in Annapolis," said GOP candidate Larry Hogan.
State Del. Ron George, another Republican running for governor, said he frequently refers concerns to the state prosecutor, in part because he doubts that the Democratic-controlled legislature would appoint a special prosecutor if it didn't serve their political interests.
"It's essential to keep that office," George said. "We can streamline it, but there are too many things going on at the state level. We need a strong state prosecutor. … When you're the minority party, and the majority party thinks [appointing a prosecutor] is going to hurt them, it's not going to happen."
But a third GOP gubernatorial candidate, Harford County Executive David R. Craig, embraced the idea of eliminating the office. "Any time duplication can be eliminated, then that is good," he said.
While the office has had successes in recent years, it has had high-profile failures, too. In 1999, after a lengthy investigation and trial, an Anne Arundel County jury acquitted Sen. Larry Young on corruption charges.
Yet at other times, it has faced criticism for its tactics being too aggressive, including ordering raids on Dixon's home in 2008.
Robert A. Rohrbaugh, who led that investigation as state prosecutor, said the case showed the value of the office. It is difficult for any elected prosecutor to investigate other officials, he said, especially the chief executive of their county, without facing retribution down the road. Federal prosecutors also face hurdles getting approval to bring cases against elected officials, he said.
"The state prosecutor has a role in Maryland, and I think it's fulfilled that role," said Rohrbaugh, who retired in 2010.
Gansler's proposal is one part of a detailed $1.5 billion fiscal plan for the state he released Tuesday. He also proposed closing corporate tax loopholes, collecting unpaid tolls, streamlining state contracting, signing more people up for Medicaid, putting fewer nonviolent offenders in jail, and switching to optical scan ballots instead of touch-screen voting systems.
Gansler drew on examples from other states across the country for his ideas to curb spending in Maryland — from California's centralized licensing system for businesses to Colorado's use of leftover asphalt to control roadside weeds.
Gansler criticized the state's growing annual debt and Gov. Martin O'Malley for techniques used to balance the state budget over the past eight years. Gansler said the state has borrowed too much money. "We have to start by spending within our means," he said.
The two-term attorney general again rebuked O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Gansler's chief rival for the Democratic nomination, for the mismanagement of the state's health insurance exchange. Gansler called the $129 million exchange's failure "the most notorious example" of how the state could better manage its resources.