Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Post Story Exposes Gansler as Media Whore

Washington Post, January 14, 2002

Courting a Public Future; Montgomery's Media-Friendly Top Prosecutor Builds Political Possibilities

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer

Visitors to his fifth-floor office in the Rockville courthouse can't miss the Time magazine photo of the tough-guy prosecutor -- sleeves rolled up -- hanging framed near the door.

Want a snappy sound bite? A colorful quote? A quick photo op?

Just give Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler a minute to pull on his jacket and straighten his tie. Smart, telegenic and unabashedly ambitious, Gansler has made himself the most visible chief prosecutor in the Washington area.

When CNN producers need a prosecutor to interview on short notice, he's their guy. Fresh off his latest appearance on NBC's "Today" show, he jokingly refers to "my boy, Matt Lauer."

After barely making headlines in the shadow of post-Sept. 11 war coverage, Gansler is back in the spotlight -- and he's having a ball. Turns out a new movie called "Kandahar" about the Taliban stars a man who Gansler believes gunned down a Bethesda man in 1980 for criticizing the Iranian government of Ayatollah Khomeini. The suspect fled to Iran.

Then came the charges against a woman referred to as the "black widow," who is accused of killing two husbands and intimidating witnesses by threatening them with voodoo. And last week, his office brought charges in another high-profile case: the alleged attempted murder of a Bethesda man by a State Department officer who was a close friend of the man's estranged wife.

Now 39, Gansler until three years ago had never tried a case in Maryland and had no experience in elective office. A Democrat, he now has his sights on Maryland's attorney general job.

But despite a string of convictions in high-profile cases and high praise from community activists, Gansler can't seem to shake a nagging question: Is he a refreshing voice informing the public about Montgomery's criminal justice system or a press-hogging lawyer bucking for a political promotion?

"I appreciate a provocateur in the right setting, but it's a difficult act, and you can get burned," said Cynthia Rubenstein, a civic activist in eastern Montgomery.

"I think first and foremost in his mind should be the question of, 'How does this serve the people?' " Rubenstein said. "Sometimes, I think he may also be asking, 'How can I serve my ambitions?' "

Others said they don't care what motivates him.

Myrna Taylor, a Rockville resident and a vice president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, said she likes the way Gansler publicizes the workings of his office. "I like to know what's going on," Taylor said.

At the same time, Gansler, a self-professed outsider, has frequently angered Rockville's tightknit courthouse community. He has criticized -- publicly and loudly -- sentences handed down by longtime judges. He's talked so much about ongoing cases that several defense lawyers have sought gag orders. He's upstaged police so often that they demanded, and got, an agreement on who would speak about major arrests.

Gansler is widely considered an energetic -- sometimes to the point of hyper -- politician who blazed onto Montgomery's staid political stage and soon took on the top Democrat, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

When the Montgomery police department, which reports to Duncan, conducted stings on illegal massage parlors by using informants to have paid sex, Gansler and Duncan feuded over who was to blame for the questionable tactics and the existence of the parlors.

That was six months after Gansler spurned Duncan's expected bid for governor by attending a secret meeting to rally support for Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D). His relationship with Duncan has grown frostier. Most recently, rumors have circulated that Duncan has encouraged other Democrats to challenge Gansler when he seeks reelection -- something Duncan denies.

"He's the other Doug in Montgomery County," Howard A. Denis, a Republican Montgomery County Council member and former state lawmaker, said of Gansler. "Both cast a big shadow. I think both have statewide ambitions, and both have people who can be critical."

Gansler acknowledges and seems to mock his enjoyment of, even need for, public attention. "Oh, here I am!" he once exclaimed, eyeing a front-page newspaper story on his desk. Then he frowned: "Kind of a bad picture."

Acutely aware of his image, Gansler told a reporter working on a profile of him: "Remember -- nice, nice, nice. No one wants to read mean." He wanted to know whether he was going to get front-page play.

"The complaint people have is one of style and personality," Gansler said in a recent interview. "When you put yourself out there, people react to that.

"In some offices, prosecutors get criticized for not turning over evidence or having poorly trained prosecutors or not having diversity in the office or not winning slam-dunk cases."

Gansler attributed the attention to a string of sensational cases handled by his office: heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson's road-rage attack; Samuel Sheinbein's flight to Israel to avoid prosecution for the mutilation murder of another teenager; convicted killer Hadden Clark's trial and revelations about the disappearance 13 years earlier of 6-year-old Michele Dorr; seven middle school students who falsely accused a gym teacher of molesting them; a homeless tree trimmer who fatally stabbed a Catholic priest in the rectory of his Germantown church.

It's not that Gansler calls the media -- he simply makes himself remarkably available. When a TV news show wants a prosecutor on the air at 6 a.m., Gansler happily obliges. If reporters need a quote on a weekend, Gansler invites them to his Chevy Chase home. He rarely, if ever, says, "No comment."

"I'm criticized because I get a lot of press attention, and I speak my mind and the truth about my views on law enforcement," Gansler said. "I view part of my job as helping to educate the public from a pro-law-enforcement, pro-citizen, pro-victim perspective."

Gansler insisted that he is a politician only because he must get elected to do a job he loves, but he rarely misses a political event. His campaign has $ 315,000 in the bank -- more than three times the most ever spent on a Montgomery state's attorney's race, raising questions about how far he has set his sights.

"He's not going to be in this county in 10 years," said Cornelius J. Vaughey, the administrative judge for Montgomery's District Court. "Maybe that's what's got everybody. People can see it."

In January 1998, Doug Gansler quit his job as a federal prosecutor in Washington to run for his current job. He had tried 15 homicides but had few high-profile cases to his name -- most notably the conviction of a Georgian diplomat in the 1997 drunken-driving death of a Kensington teenager near Dupont Circle.

Although the old-guard Rockville courthouse crowd considered Gansler an upstart, he had been grooming the political trail for years.

Gansler spent his high school summers working in the press office of then-U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.). His job: pitching the senator's sound bites to TV and radio stations.

"He was straightforward even in college about the fact that he wanted to go into public service," said Michael N. Levy, a friend who worked with Gansler at the U.S. attorney's office.

He came with an insider's resume: Raised in Chevy Chase. High school at Sidwell Friends. College at Yale. University of Virginia law school. Two years as an associate at the Howrey & Simon law firm in Washington. Almost seven years as a mid-level prosecutor at the U.S. attorney's office. His father held high-level Defense Department posts in the administrations of four presidents.

His wife, Laura Leedy Gansler, 39, said she remembers his talking politics early in their dating at Virginia. (They met the first day of law school. As Gansler remembers it: "After I found out she went to Harvard, I walked up and asked her to be in my study group.") She remembers him talking about his days running the Yalies for Gary Hart campaign. She thought it a bit weird, she said, that a twentysomething liked spending his Thursday and Friday nights at grass-roots political meetings.

Laura Gansler, a part-time attorney for the National Association of Securities Dealers, shies away from the spotlight. She said she never expected her husband to win the state's attorney race, but she thought his running would be a good example of risk-taking for their sons, Samuel, now 7, and William, 4.

"In retrospect, I shouldn't have been skeptical," she said. "He takes risks, but he doesn't do things he doesn't think he has a relatively good chance of success at."

Virtually a no-name to the public, Gansler proved a dogged campaigner, jogging door-to-door on muggy summer afternoons with a list of likely Democratic voters. At debates, his youthful looks and bouncy energy made him look like a college whiz kid trying to one-up his father's friends.

He promised to put prosecutors in closer touch with neighborhoods and criticized his opponent, incumbent Robert L. Dean, as part of the "country club" that had ruled the Montgomery courthouse for 30 years. It also didn't hurt that Dean, the homegrown Democratic favorite, was facing a sexual discrimination lawsuit from a former prosecutor.

Since taking office, Gansler has remained active on Maryland's Democratic political circuit. As of now, he said, he's running for reelection. If J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D) decides not to seek reelection as Maryland's attorney general, Gansler said he would "strongly consider" running for the job. He has already signed up to run Townsend's expected gubernatorial campaign in Montgomery.

American University law professor Jamin Raskin called his friend of 12 years a "born politician" -- gregarious, loyal, ferociously energetic, genuinely happy being with people. He introduced Gansler at political events as "the only Jewish guy you'll ever meet who looks like he could be a member of the Kennedy family."

"I always tell Doug what my grandfather told me: that your ambition should show like the shirt sleeves on a suit. They should stick out a bit but not too far," Raskin said. "I think his shirt sleeves are certainly showing, but I don't think they're too far out. . . . I'm not denying Doug is ambitious. My point is: Doug is ambitious, and that's a perfectly good thing in politics."

The child molester was on his way to jail, but Gansler had some words for the judge.

An 18-month jail term for having sex with an 11-year-old girl was "more appropriate for a shoplifter," he wrote in a news release. As for the judge's courtroom comments that the girl had invited the man into her bedroom and "it takes two to tango," Gansler wrote: "This was an 11-year-old. This was not a tango."

What became known as the "tango incident" -- one year into Gansler's term -- marked the beginning of rocky relationships between Gansler and those he must work with, including some judges, defense lawyers and police.

"Am I going to see my comments in tomorrow's paper?" some judges began asking Gansler's prosecutors. "Get Gansler down here. He needs the experience," one judge snapped to a prosecutor who asked for a postponement.

Some judges said they believed that Gansler was sacrificing their reputations for his political gain, saying he misrepresented what went on in their courtrooms.

"We were infuriated," said one judge, who regularly oversees cases tried by Gansler's prosecutors and for that reason spoke on condition of anonymity.

"For years, the courthouse culture was a culture of silence," said James Shalleck, a Gansler supporter and a two-time Republican candidate for state's attorney. "Judges wouldn't be attacked by lawyers or criticized by the state's attorney. Doug has changed that culture by criticizing judges when he thinks they're wrong and bringing it to the public's attention."

Longtime Rockville lawyer Philip Armstrong attributed Gansler's "fair number of bumps in the road" to the fact that he is an outspoken outsider who made changes.

"It's not easy coming in here as a comparatively young prosecutor taking over a legacy of 30 years," Armstrong said. "A lot of people wanted him to fail."

Gansler has won convictions in the three Montgomery cases he has tried, though he is not regarded as an exceptional legal mind. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals chastised him for comments he made during the 1999 trial of a man charged with killing his son to collect life insurance on the baby. The man appealed his conviction, in part contending that Gansler had prejudiced the jury by making an argument that he had promised the judge he wouldn't make.

The appeals court called Gansler's actions "perplexing and disturbing" but found that his "isolated comment" was not so prejudicial as to warrant the man's getting a new trial. Gansler said the appeals court considered his comment out of context, and he dismissed the issue as unimportant.

One longtime prosecutor said the potentially case-reversing remark was seen as reckless for a county's chief prosecutor.

Gansler also is not the person to ask about the finer points of Maryland law. Ask, and he often responds with a shout of "Kay! John!" out his open office door, summoning his two deputies -- both far more seasoned prosecutors -- for the answer.

But judges and defense lawyers said he is sharp, persuasive and quick on his feet. He has drawn praise for a new screening program that clears bogus and unprosecutable cases from the crowded District Court docket and for helping establish a Domestic Violence Court. The Montgomery state's attorney's office now boasts its first female deputy, its first Asian American prosecutors, triple the number of African American prosecutors and twice as many Spanish speakers.

Gansler's revamping of the office to assign prosecutors to neighborhoods won him quick praise from civic leaders. Jim Johnson, a community activist in east Takoma Park and east Silver Spring, said he was wary of Gansler until he saw crimes such as low-level drug dealing and purse snatchings get personal attention from the prosecutor assigned to his neighborhood.

"Is he creating a political machine through this?" said Johnson, co-chairman of the Long Branch Neighborhood Initiative. "Whether he's intending to or not, I'm sure he's inspiring a lot of loyalty. My bottom line is: How is it working for us? It seems to be working very well."

In addition to attorney general, Gansler's name has been mentioned as Townsend's lieutenant governor running mate. He is coy about whether he would want the job. When pressed, he finally says: "I'd probably be dogcatcher if she asked me to be dogcatcher. I think she's great."

And what about stories that he has been boasting to friends for years that he plans to be president of the United States?

Gansler, never at a loss for a catchy quote or quick comeback, suddenly falls speechless. The question leads to silence. And more silence. Finally, he says going from the Rockville courthouse to the White House is a "big leap," something he doesn't think about in "practical terms."

He is blushing. He also is smiling.

3 Comments:

At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Margaret Candler said...

witnesses by threatening them with voodoo. And last week, his office brought charges in another high-profile case: the alleged attempted murder of a Bethesda man by a State Department officer who was a close friend of the man's estranged wife.

I respond to the above statement from your article: It is now June 2014 and Doug Gansler is running for Governor of Maryland. Gansler's prosecution of this case is further reason for "Anyone But Gansler". Elsa Newman, the estranged wife was tried and convicted of conspiracy to attempt murder and related charges. Maryland's highest court reversed that ruling. However, under State's Attorney Douglas Gansler, Elsa Newman was recharged without new evidence. Gansler spoke out in the press against Ms. Newman before the trial began. During the trial he took every opportunity for TV appearances after the days hearings. After the second conviction the jury foreman was caught on camera stating that "He knew from the start that she (Newman) was guilty."

Elsa Newman has served 12 plus years for a crime committed by Margery Landry who testified that she acted alone and that Elsa Newman was in no way involved. In fact, the prosecutor offered Landry a further reduction in sentence if she would implicate Ms. Newman in the second trial. Margery Landry refused the offer. Read more at www.justice4elsanewman.com

 
At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Margaret Candler said...

witnesses by threatening them with voodoo. And last week, his office brought charges in another high-profile case: the alleged attempted murder of a Bethesda man by a State Department officer who was a close friend of the man's estranged wife.

I respond to the above statement from your article: It is now June 2014 and Doug Gansler is running for Governor of Maryland. Gansler's prosecution of this case is further reason for "Anyone But Gansler". Elsa Newman, the estranged wife was tried and convicted of conspiracy to attempt murder and related charges. Maryland's highest court reversed that ruling. However, under State's Attorney Douglas Gansler, Elsa Newman was recharged without new evidence. Gansler spoke out in the press against Ms. Newman before the trial began. During the trial he took every opportunity for TV appearances after the days hearings. After the second conviction the jury foreman was caught on camera stating that "He knew from the start that she (Newman) was guilty."

Elsa Newman has served 12 plus years for a crime committed by Margery Landry who testified that she acted alone and that Elsa Newman was in no way involved. In fact, the prosecutor offered Landry a further reduction in sentence if she would implicate Ms. Newman in the second trial. Margery Landry refused the offer. Read more at www.justice4elsanewman.com

 
At 1:33 PM, Blogger Margaret Candler said...


 

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