ANNAPOLIS — Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas Gansler should not have talked to the news media about a murder-for-hire case, although the information was already public, a lawyer for the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission said Friday.
Mr. Gansler risked tainting the case when he told a newspaper reporter about a possible plea bargain, attorney John Broderick told the Court of Appeals.
“The state’s attorney is not a public information officer,” Mr. Broderick told the state’s highest court. “He is the lawyer for the state.”
Mr. Broderick told the court that Maryland’s rules governing lawyers set strict limits on what prosecutors may say to the news media, even if the information is available through court documents or was disclosed in open court.
The Court of Appeals could sanction Mr. Gansler for the comments he made before the 2001 trial of James Perry.
Mr. Gansler is the first state’s attorney to be charged with violating the Rules of Professional Conduct for statements made outside a courtroom.
Mr. Broderick asked the court, which has jurisdiction over attorneys practicing in the state, to reprimand Mr. Gansler. The court also has the authority to impose stiffer sanctions, including suspension or disbarment.
Mr. Gansler said after the hearing that he has a duty as a prosecutor to inform the public about the legal system. He said he never has made statements to the news media that weren’t already in the public record.
“I follow the rules,” Mr. Gansler said. “A public elected official can publicly comment on that which is already public information.”
He criticized the Attorney Grievance Commission, saying it searched through every statement he made during his 4 years in office to find something to use against him. A Frederick County judge cleared him in April of wrongdoing over four other comments he made to the news media.
“The Attorney Grievance Commission should not be involved in blatant partisan politics,” Mr. Gansler said, without elaborating.
Mr. Gansler told the Gazette newspaper in April 2000 that he planned to offer a plea bargain to Perry and that “when the offer is formally presented, Perry would have six weeks to make a decision.”
The Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct say a lawyer should not make “extrajudicial statements” if they could “materially prejudice” a court case. It lists discussion of possible guilty pleas as prohibited speech.
The rules also allow lawyers to discuss information already in the public record “without elaboration.”
Mr. Gansler’s attorney, Carmen Shepard, said that rule isn’t clear on how much a state’s attorney can discuss about what is already public.
In the Perry case, defense attorneys and the victims’ families also had spoken of a plea deal. Punishing Mr. Gansler on such a vague rule would be unfair, she said.
“What we really have is an absence of clear guidance,” Miss Shepard said.
Mr. Broderick told the court the rule prohibits prosecutors from repeating public information or even guiding reporters to where they can find the information.
“So you’re saying he can’t comment publicly and can’t tell people where to find it?” asked Judge Dale Cathell.
“That’s not his job,” Mr. Broderick said. “His job is to prosecute.”