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Conflict of Interest: Del. Joseph Vallario and a Question of Ethics

From the early 1970s through the mid-80s, Montgomery County Delegate Joseph Owens – a Democrat – chaired the House Judiciary Committee.

Owens, who was known as “The Abominable No Man” because of his penchant for stomping out potential crime-related legislation, set the bar pretty high when it came to killing bills in his committee.

That is until 1993, when current chair – Del. Joseph P. Vallario (D – Prince George’s County) – took over the Judiciary Committee and cleared said bar with all the ease of an Olympic pole vaulter.

 

Del. Joseph Vallario

Del. Joseph Vallario

A fellow Montgomery County Democrat, Del. Luiz Simmons, said that Vallario once “desk-drawered” a bill he sponsored for seven years before the chair allowed a committee vote.

And that was just one incident in a long, not-so-storied history of Vallario’s propensity for burying legislation he simply doesn’t like, or, as many have said, laws that may affect his trial lawyer/defense attorney livelihood.

Over the course of his chairmanship Vallario has been attacked, blamed and criticized by fellow legislators, lobbyists and even members of his own committee for what has sometimes seemed as blatant disregard for the rights of crime victims and worse, being easy on those who commit those crimes.

In 2010, then-delegate Sue Kullen (D – Calvert County) sent a letter – on behalf of the Women’s Caucus – to House Speaker Michael Busch, claiming that Vallario was, basically, unfit for the chairman’s role due to despotic leadership tactics and boorish treatment of witnesses appearing before the committee.

And, in what has become Vallario’s signature self-important stance on well, everything, the delegate answered the Washington Post’s inquiry about the letter by offering, “People do anything to get in the paper. Look where she is now.”

Kullen is now is out of the legislature; she lost her reelection campaign in 2010.

From drunk-driving laws to mandatory sentences for gun crimes to sexual predator legislation to being hailed as a “hero” to the illegal immigrant-backing Casa de Maryland, Del. Vallario has long faced accusations of conflict of interest and an unyielding misuse of power.

But Vallario’s pompous pettifoggery and dictatorial behavior was never more on display then it was during the 2013 General Assembly session.

The Judiciary Committee had just approved an amendment to Gov. O’Malley’s Constitutionally-questionable gun bill that would have imposed both mandatory minimum sentences and the elimination of dimunition credits for those who commit violent crimes using stolen firearms.

Vallario, apparently not happy that his committee had just betrayed the legal profession with its mandatory minimum actions, called for a revote, claiming that the first tally represented a “wrong count.”

The recount killed the amendment and obviously gave Vallario the result he was seeking all along.

That scenario, and the manner in which it unfolded, brought the loudest outcries yet regarding a politician who uses his office for personal gain.

Until now.

This past Wednesday, Maryland’s legislative ethics committee held a “closed-door discussion” on a complaint filed against Del. Vallario; an accusation that stems from the chairman’s conduct during the 2011 General Assembly session and his reluctance to support legislation that would have strengthened vehicular manslaughter laws.

As first reported in the Washington Post, the mother of a Maryland woman who was killed in a crash involving an SUV and a bicycle went to Annapolis to lobby for tougher penalties for such accidents, knowing that her daughter’s killer would most likely escape significant penalties given the strength of laws that were then on the books.

The mother, Kenniss Henry, took her case to Judiciary Committee Chair Joe Vallario, who had long opposed legislation that would increase penalties for negligent drivers.

During the meeting Henry shared with Vallario the story of her daughter, Natasha Pettigrew, a Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate, who set out on her bike one morning only to be struck and killed by Christy Littleford.

Littleford would eventually be found guilty of leaving the scene of an accident (she told authorities she thought she had hit a deer) and received a four-year sentence, with three-years of it suspended.

What Henry didn’t know during her meeting with Vallario was that Christy Littleford was being defended by attorney Joseph F. Vallario III, the delegate’s son.

According to the Washington Post, Henry filed her complaint out of fear that Del. Vallario could have shared details of her case with his son; with whom the Judiciary Chair shares a law office in Suitland, MD.

“He had the power to take any statements I made back to his firm and his son could have [used] my words against me,” The Post reports Henry’s language in the complaint pending ethics complaint. “Delegate Vallario’s behavior is not only dubious, it is sleazy and unethical.”

And while Del. Vallario told the Post “he has nothing at all to do” with his son’s business, journalist John Wagner notes that not only do the two share office space (in a building the delegate owns), but they also share an office phone number where after hours callers are “invited to leave messages for the father, the son and the firm’s other lawyers.

Interestingly, the court file on Littleford’s accident includes a letter sent to the judge in the case. That letter appears on “Vallario & Collins” letterhead, an “entity” that Del. Vallario said has never been the firm’s “formal” name.

Littleford’s court letter list five attorneys, including both Vallarios.

While neither Littleford nor Vallario III would comment on the ethics allegations or talk about when the delegate’s son was hired to represent Littleford, Del. Vallario points out that he voted for the bill that Henry was advocating. But he did so only after House Speaker Michael Busch threw his weight behind the measure, and Vallario added that even though he voted in the affirmative, he “wasn’t jumping up and down about it.”

But the conflict of interest questions still linger – as they have throughout the delegate’s time on judiciary.

Also this week Vallario was forced to acknowledge potential wrongdoings by his campaign committee, saying they have repeatedly misidentified the source of a $50,000 loan it received in 2009.
According to the delegate’s campaign finance forms, the loan was reported as coming from the escrow account of that “informal entity,” Vallario & Collins.

The $50,000 loan, of which Vallario said he had been “shocked” to learn that it has been noted on his campaign forms in that manner for the last four years.

The delegate told the Washington Post that the loan – which he needed because he was heading into the 2010 election campaign – came from his personal funds and not his firm’s escrow account.
Maryland election law is crystal clear when it comes to accountability in cases of campaign committee disclosure reports; the campaign chair and treasurer are responsible for the accuracy and proper filing of said reports.

Del. Vallario’s chairman and treasurer are his wife, Mary Vallario, and long-time Vallario & Collins secretary Barbara Proden, respectively.

In addition to both the ethics and campaign loan woes, Vallario – if he runs – will go into the 2014 election season as a victim of last year’s legislative redistricting. Something his supporters say was payback for being an obstructionist to the wants of Gov. O’Malley and other liberal leaders over the years.

And make no mistake; Del. Joseph Vallario has critics and adversaries on both sides of the aisle, and it would come as a surprise to no one if the one-party machine in Annapolis has had enough of the delegate’s antics.

The Legislative Ethics Committee is unlikely to issue a ruling/statement on Vallario until the General Assembly session begins in January.

But, if this investigation were truly about ethics, then the convergence of Joseph Vallario’s career and committee chairmanship would have been examined years ago – long before the accident that caused the death of Ms. Pettigrew.

Because this delegate, who has been in the Maryland Legislature since Gerald Ford was president, should never have been allowed to rule over a committee that oversees the manner in which his (or any other) law firm makes its money.

Categories: Criminal Justice, Government Transparency, Must Read, Opinion, Transparency, Uncategorized, Waste, Fraud and Abuse
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