ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich on Wednesday called on the House Judiciary Committee chairman to advance his stalled measure to curb witness intimidation.
Delegate Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, has the bill bottled up in his committee.
“The chairman has, on more than one occasion, stuffed a bill in his desk,” Ehrlich said of the man on whose committee he sat when he was a delegate.
Time is running out on the bill. The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn its 90-day session on April 11.
Vallario, a defense attorney, said he has held the bill because of his distaste for the bill’s “hearsay” provision, which allows for previous statements to be used in court if the witness is no longer available to testify in person.
“It needs to escape the chairman’s desk,” Ehrlich said at a news conference held to discuss the witness intimidation bill’s lack of progress.
But, in an interview, Vallario said he has tried to work with the governor’s office.
“I’m trying,” he said, “but not having a lot of success. The hearsay is not acceptable…
“I’m not holding it up,” Vallario said, “he is.”
While Vallario has proposed legislation similar to the governor’s without the objectionable provision, he said he wants to pass the governor’s proposal.
The legislation would enhance the penalty for threatening a witness, making it a felony to threaten or to solicit another person to intimidate a potential witness or victim of a crime. It would boost the penalty from five to 20 years in prison and impose a maximum $5,000 fine.
After the news conference, the governor called Delegate Luiz R.S. Simmons, D-Montgomery, to discuss the bill. Simmons had drafted an amendment to the hearsay provision with the governor’s office.
Simmons and Vallario met later and were still trying to iron out the issue Wednesday night.
The bill has 118 co-sponsors and is supported by the state’s attorneys because of a statewide problem of intimidation, but especially in Baltimore, said Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy at the news conference.
“In the homicide cases,” Jessamy said, “(in) at least 90 percent there is some form of witness intimidation.”
Jessamy said the bill won’t solve the entire problem, but is an excellent beginning.
Ehrlich said he hopes the bill will get a vote in the full House, but if it doesn’t pass he will take a witness intimidation case to federal court.
When asked about circumventing the committee and forcing a vote to the House floor, Ehrlich said although such a maneuver has been discussed he was hesitant to go outside of the normal processes of the Legislature.
“Speaker Busch has told us on numerous occasions that he will assist us with moving the bill with Chairman Vallario,” Ehrlich said.
Jessamy walked arm and arm, after the news conference, with the governor’s chief counsel to the House Speaker’s office to speak with Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
After a meeting that lasted less than two minutes, she said she was pleased with the result.
Jessamy did not call on Vallario, although she said she had spoken and even lunched with him to discuss witness intimidation.
In an interview, Busch said while he has spoken with Vallario, witness intimidation has taken a back seat to getting the budget and other important pieces of legislation passed.
“It’s not a partisan issue,” Busch said. “We’re looking at it trying to take into consideration Chairman Vallario’s concerns. He’s been a practicing attorney for more than 40 years.”