A developing scandal in the Maryland prison system could pose a major obstacle for Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley's presidential ambitions, critics say.
Incarcerated members of the Black Guerrilla Family gang, with help from female prison guards, hijacked the Baltimore City Detention Center over the past few years, according to federal charges announced earlier this month. Gang leaders allegedly ran street operations on cell phones smuggled in by the corrections officers, built a robust drug trade behind bars, and impregnated several of the guards.
Republicans say this could make for a potent political attack against O’Malley, who ran for governor on a tough-on-crime platform in 2006 and claimed he drastically reduced criminal incidents during his time as Baltimore mayor.
"It’s the kind of thing that, whether you’re a conservative or a liberal you can’t explain it, you can’t justify it, you can’t defend it," said former Republican state legislator Don Murphy. "It would be the big, 20-point type on the fliers that went into homes of unaffiliated voters."
Maryland GOP executive director David Ferguson noted O’Malley’s history of promoting his crime-reduction efforts.
"It’s going to be difficult for him to distance himself from this because he’s been involved with the penal system at every level of his career," said Ferguson.
Critics are already making the connection to former Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis, who was pummeled during his 1988 presidential campaign for his "prison furlough" policy that led to the release of Wilie Horton.
"If Martin O’Malley wants to be president, he could learn a thing or two from Michael Dukakis," said Murphy. "The only thing worse than letting the prisoners run wild outside the prison is letting them run the prison."
One Maryland Republican Party source said this would likely be "one of the top issues that’s going to be under consideration" for state-targeted GOP attacks against O’Malley and his administration allies. O’Malley’s Lieutenant Governor Anthony G. Brown is considered a likely contender for the 2014 gubernatorial election.
The latest prison scandal is similar to previous incidents in the Maryland prison system during O’Malley’s tenure. Federal authorities arrested members of the Black Guerrilla Family and correctional officers in another racketeering probe in 2009, alleging that the imprisoned gang members operated an expansive outside drug ring, orchestrated attacks on rivals, and enlisted prison guards to help them smuggle in contraband.
O’Malley, who has been on a trip to the Middle East, has yet to respond to criticism about the Baltimore detention center. But Republicans say the scandal is a sign O’Malley is not ready for prime time on national security and foreign policy issues.
"I’d hate to have Martin O’Malley running Gitmo the way he’s running the Baltimore City Detention Center," said Murphy.
Harford County executive David Craig, a Republican candidate for governor in 2014, said the scandal raises questions about competence.
"How are you going to be able to assess what’s happening in Syria or Afghanistan or Iran, if this is how you analyzed what happened in your correctional facility?" he said.
O’Malley praised Maryland's Department of Public Safety secretary Gary Maynard, who oversees the Baltimore prison just days before the prison allegations broke in an interview with the Baltimore Sun editorial board.
Federal prosecutors charged a total of 25 in the latest Black Guerrilla Family sting. Two defendants, gang leader Tavon White and one of the three correctional officers he allegedly impregnated, had their initial appearances in federal court Monday. Both pleaded not guilty.
A spokesperson for Gov. O’Malley’s office said Republicans were ignoring the fact that state officials assisted federal authorities with the prison investigation.
"The Governor has made public safety a priority," said Raquel Guillory, O’Malley’s director of communications. "It is collaboration on these types of efforts that helps us achieve the goal of reducing violence in Maryland and in our correctional system. Unfortunately, the Republicans you have spoken to have either chosen to ignore the State's role in the investigation or are just completely unaware of the facts."