BALTIMORE – Lynne Battaglia is in argument mode.
The U.S. Attorney for Maryland shakes her head gently and closes her eyes for emphasis, while her voice takes on a clipped, matter-of-fact tone as she details why a national database about her office’s caseload has it wrong.
Battaglia is carefully making it known: She won’t back down.
“Lynne knows where she wants to go and how she wants to get there,” said Joshua Treem, a lawyer in Baltimore. “If she is convinced she is right, she will go forward.”
Friends said that assertiveness is fueled by a genuine concern for the people she advocates for — whether it’s a crime victim seeking justice in court or a woman fighting for equal pay in the workplace.
That approach has driven Battaglia’s 25-year career, five of which have been spent as the state’s lead federal prosecutor, the first woman appointed by the president to that post. During her tenure, the office has cracked down on drug trafficking, weapons violations and white-collar crime, and criminal sentences are now among the nation’s longest.
They are issues that she concedes are close to her heart. Health-care fraud is one example: Battaglia’s 91-year-old mother lives in a nursing home and relies on Medicare. “Without medical care and medical assistance, it would be very difficult. She’s 91. I don’t know how long she’s going to need that type of care,” Battaglia said. “We spent down everything that she had. Everything. It’s a very personal issue to me.”
Violent crime is also a personal issue for Battaglia, who was on a Baltimore street in 1975 when a man came up behind her and began stabbing her.
“It was in the wintertime, and I had on sweaters … and a coat and all that, so the knife didn’t go through to my vital organs,” she said. “I can’t tell you why he did it, because he got my purse …. He just kept hitting me in the back.”
Her attacker was never caught. Battaglia’s night in the emergency room and the ensuing sleepless months shocked her into understanding the importance of safety and the plight of crime victims. “I was not aware of this. I was raised in a middle-class environment,” said Battaglia, who grew up in a small town in upstate New York. “All of a sudden, I find myself in an emergency room with a gunshot victim next to me. And it was an eye-opener.” In her hometown of Silver Creek, near Buffalo, N.Y., she noticed that all the town’s leaders were lawyers, and decided the best way to navigate her way through life was to know the rules. “If you understand the process, you get better treatment,” she said. “I believe lawyers can make the biggest difference in society … (because) they are educated in being advocates.” Battaglia was the first person in her “very ethnic” Polish-Italian family to attend college. She immersed herself in student government at American University, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international relations before going to the University of Maryland Law School. “Lawyering” and advocacy became her passions. She landed a job in 1974 at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes in Baltimore, where she realized that female attorneys made less money at the firm than their male counterparts. She spoke up and the firm changed its policy.
“That was the type of thing they didn’t think about,” Battaglia said. “I have to say I have been fortunate in getting that response anytime I’ve gone in and been assertive (about women’s rights).”
When she became assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland four years later, she again faced problems because of her gender. “It was very much a men’s world,” said Jane Moscowitz, an assistant U.S. attorney at the time. Moscowitz and Battaglia banded together, determined to make it on their own and not on the coattails of a male mentor. “We made ourselves notorious in a way that was funny, but not funny,” Moscowitz said. They prosecuted cases “from the ridiculous to the sublime,” including a bombing murder trial that twice ended in hung juries before Moscowitz and Battaglia won a conviction. Meanwhile, Battaglia refined her craft. In one mail fraud case, she had such a tight hold on the jury’s attention that their heads followed her in perfect unison as she paced the floor. “It was like one of those shooting galleries, with the ducks on the runners,” said Herb Better, an assistant U.S. attorney at the time. “They were following her like a tennis match.” She left for the Justice Department’s Office of Special Litigation and, in 1988, went to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office as head of the criminal investigations division, with a focus on environmental and white-collar crimes. In 1991, she became chief of staff for Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Baltimore, and, in 1993, was appointed U.S. attorney. In that job, her assertiveness and activism have struck a chord.
“She’s not reactive, and generally doesn’t take no for an answer. She’s not a potted plant,” said Donna Bucella, director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. “She doesn’t just do everything, she does everything aggressively.” Tales of Battaglia’s outspokenness abound. “We didn’t always agree,” said Danny Colson, a retired FBI agent who was special agent in charge in Maryland. “We could argue with each other. Her words were, ‘I think we’re going to agree to disagree.’ ”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Katharine Armentrout remembers a disagreement over Maryland’s High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area so intense that it left colleagues “with their mouths open.”
“You don’t often see two people in a work situation arguing candidly,” Armentrout said. This time it was “an actual, real tug-of-war.”
But when it was over, it was over. No hard feelings.
“She keeps a focus on what the issue is and doesn’t take the argument personally,” Armentrout said. “That’s very freeing.”
But others have felt overpowered by Battaglia’s style. David Irwin, of Irwin, Green and Dexter in Baltimore, said assistants under Battaglia “aren’t as free to negotiate” as they may have been in years past. Others say Battaglia’s office has personnel problems — assistant attorneys who are not doing the job, but cannot be fired due to restrictive regulations. Battaglia denies both charges. “Whenever I have a criticism given to me about the work of an assistant, I look into it,” she said. “I can take certain steps, but they’re subject to review by the executive office.” While she admits to a “hands-on” approach, Battaglia said it is because her name is on every indictment and plea agreement. Many say Battaglia’s assertiveness is just misunderstood. When asked about the argument with Armentrout, for example, she remembers only a disagreement. Moscowitz said that Battaglia speaks her mind, but she could not “remember a time when she actually lost her temper as opposed to standing her ground.” “When some people argue, they look and feel furious. Lynne doesn’t come packaged with the same ‘mad’ face,” Moscowitz said. Irwin said Battaglia “has a lot of power, and it’s always hard wielding power. You’re always open to criticism. She really always does what she thinks is right.” He remembers being invited to Thanksgiving dinner by Battaglia, when both were single parents. Ray Bonner, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said he never had trouble approaching Battaglia. “For me, she just had an open-door policy,” Bonner said. “I would talk with her about both major and minor decisions.” One year, she cooked dinner for every floor in the office, serving stuffed shells at her Columbia townhouse, then joined two secretaries on Weight Watchers in the aftermath. Another time, she shipped the whole staff out to Camden Yards for a group photograph. The framed picture hangs in the corner of her office, one of several group shots, next to paintings of flowers and birds. A small table and the top of a file cabinet are crowded with plaques and other keepsakes, including a teddy bear from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and a wind-up car from the State Police. When President Clinton’s term ends in 2001, his successor will likely name a replacement for Battaglia. Her future could include private practice, teaching or even politics. Right now they all look attractive, she says. So does the possibility of another term. “In two years, if I loved this job, and I still felt I was doing a good job, and (Vice President Al) Gore said I gotta have you and (Maryland Sen. Paul) Sarbanes said you gotta stay, it would be hard to turn that down,” she said. “Certainly, it’s possible. The chance of it happening? Who knows? “I really love this job,” she says. She thinks about it for a second, laughs, and says again, “I really love this job.” -30-