The United States vs. Marilyn Mosby
“Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee sang in the 1969 song about the anti-climax of life’s big moments: Her house caught fire as a child; she fell in love; none of it lived up to the hype. The song appeared in the last season of “Mad Men,” as Don Draper realized for the zillionth time that reality cannot match expectation.
The song came to my mind when I learned that Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby was indicted for fraud and perjury related to two mortgage loan applications. The indictment had been built up for almost a year. On March 19, 2021, the public first learned Mosby and her husband, City Council President Nick Mosby, were under federal investigation for possible financial crimes. This announcement followed a series of investigations led by the Baltimore Brew and Office of the Inspector General (OIG) into Mosby’s travel schedule and curious side businesses; and the discovery that the IRS placed a tax lien of $45,000 on the Mosbys. Two days after the investigation was leaked, on March 21, the public learned that Mosby had just purchased two Florida homes, worth more than $1 million combined.
Usually the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland (USAO) doesn’t leak investigations. The same office made a big deal about who leaked the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) investigation, arguing that it put their case at risk. The feds didn’t seem concerned about the leak this time. The Baltimore Sun obtained a Grand Jury subpoena sent to Mosby’s campaign treasurer for records going back to 2014. Mosby’s attorney accused the feds of leaking the subpoena themselves in a letter to the DOJ. Nick Mosby received his subpoena during a public meeting. The feds wanted this investigation known.
After the federal investigation was revealed, nothing happened for most of the year. Mosby stood on stage announcing a joint crime fighting venture with local FBI officials whose colleagues were investigating her.
Finally, two weeks ago, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Maryland (USAO) announced perjury and fraud charges against Ms. Mosby, with no charges against her husband. For an investigation reportedly going back to 2014, the charges only pertained to a short period before the indictment. Mosby is accused of falsely claiming a Covid-related hardship to waive a tax penalty to withdraw money from her retirement account twice, in May and December 2020. She then used the funding to put down payments on the two Florida properties. She is also accused of lying on those mortgage applications by not acknowledging the tax lien.
With Mosby and her husband characterized for a full year in the media as financially scandal-plagued, some of us were expecting a bit more. The recent indictments of the Gun Trace Task Force and Mayor Catherine Pugh exposed significant criminality and corruption. By contrast, Mosby is accused of lying to hold onto a bit more of her income. “Who amongst us…?” one might ask. (Not me, of course.)
Even if you have never told a white lie on a tax or mortgage form, do you really think such crimes generally deserve up to 70 years in prison, as Mosby faces? She could pay a big fine and lose her law license, and many of the people who want to see her held accountable for something would be satisfied.
The flip side has been pointed out: Mosby is a prosecutor in the business of locking people up everyday and destroying their lives, often for less than lying to the IRS. She is also rich compared to those amongst us who might tell a white lie to hold onto a few bucks from the IRS or a bank (not me, of course). She is one of the ten highest paid public employees in Baltimore City. According to the indictment, she brings home more than $18,000 a month. She has security protection and probably other expenses paid for by taxpayers. She has traveled the world on the dimes of charitable foundations. At least some of her legal fees are covered by the Attorney General’s office. If she has too many other personal legal fees, it’s mostly a result of her own actions.
There seems to be a lot going on with the Mosbys we are unlikely to ever understand from this case, unless other charges follow. She bought the two homes and allegedly lied about her finances while under a microscope. She purchased the first house two months after the tax lien (and has since flipped it for a profit); she bought the second house while she knew the IG and feds were investigating her and her husband. The indictment runs too shallow to clarify what is really going on, and it only covers a period of time during which she was already under investigation. There have also been reports that she misused campaign funds for her personal legal needs, which seems more serious than the current charges.
In response to the federal investigation and indictment, the Mosbys and their supporters have been pushing back all year. They have accused USAO of being racist, corrupt, and agenda-driven and of manipulating the press. Mosby’s attorney requested that prosecutors Leo Wise and Stephen Schenning recuse themselves from the investigation due to the media leaks and bias. He pointed out that Wise gave money to Mosby’s two opponents during the 2018 campaign.
Nick Mosby has used his political power and allies to limit the OIG’s independence. His wife has invoked Biblical verses to characterize herself as a martyr; her supporters have held press conferences where they chant for her freedom. The couple’s supporters have asked for donations to her legal fund from the citizens who pay for her salary and fringe benefits.
The Mosbys have been relatively successful in their defensive public relations campaign against USAO—at least compared to Mayor Pugh, who cried at a podium while holding baby clothes when her scheme to trade useless children’s books for political favor was exposed. Ms. Mosby may not win, legally. Yet, she has benefited from allies in the press and on the national stage. A March 2021 Baltimore Sun editorial called the mere fact of an investigation into the Mosbys “bad for Baltimore,” something the Sun never said about the Pugh investigation. (One of the editorial’s authors is married to a long-time Mosby ally.)
Support for Mosby comes from the image she has cultivated as a “progressive prosecutor” since she took office. She had Vice-President Kamala Harris’ full-throated endorsement during her re-election campaign. Yet, aside from the idolatry, some of the people speaking up from Mosby’s corner do have a point: The way USAO has been operating leaves room for accusations of racism and more.
The United States
In 2008, federal prosecutor Leo Wise was hired by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi to lead a new Office of Congressional Ethics in the House of Representatives. The office was designed to investigate complaints and recommend which cases the House Ethics Committee should pursue. Pelosi was going to “drain the swamp,” she said, an ever-promising refrain in U.S. politics.
Two years later, Wise resigned from that role. There had been complaints and not just from Republicans. He was letting investigations become public news even if they didn’t result in charges, so harming the reputations of the subjects. He did this sometimes before elections. He was referring ethics violations to the Department of Justice for possible criminal investigation. He was digging into personal finances, and he seemed to be pursuing complaints at whim without rules to guide him.
Mostly, Wise was criticized for seeming to racially target the subjects of his investigations. At one point, of the eight open investigations, all of them targeted Black Democratic members of the House. There aren’t that many Black members in Congress. The Congressional Black Caucus drafted a resolution to limit Wise’s freedom to investigate the complaints he selected, whenever and however he wanted, and to publicize the investigations. If there were, as one would assume, ethical violations and personal financial issues all over the place in Congress, why did it seem Black members were targeted and exposed publicly? Wise didn’t help his office by avoiding the appearance of racial targeting.
Twelve years later, with the announcement of Mosby’s indictment, Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund spoke out on Twitter: “There must be a federal prosecutor assigned just to Black mayors. Misuse of gift cards? Grifting bad children's books to state agencies? Lying on mortgage forms? They are on it!”
Ifill does have one point. USAO-MD has been mostly targeting prominent Black people. Wise joined the office after Mayor Dixon's case but, since then, USAO has convicted Commissioner Darryl De Sousa for nonpayment of taxes, Mayor Catherine Pugh for her children’s book scheme, Delegate Sheryl Glenn for taking a bribe, attorney Kenneth Ravenell for laundering drug money, and now Mosby. All are Black. These indictments earned Wise a promotion to the Chief Prosecutor in charge of corruption. Two members of GTTF were white, Sergeant Wayne Jenkins and Detective Daniel Hersl, but they weren’t the targets of USAO’s investigation. They should have been, given the number of complaints against them, but they landed on a wiretap while USAO had its eye on some Black cops.
What does a corrupt white official have to do in Baltimore to get indicted? Who is criminally investigating Governor Larry Hogan’s real estate schemes? The examples often provided, like former Commissioner Ed Norris, go back many years. In the current era, being a corrupt leader in Maryland is mostly associated with being Black. An anchorwoman was fired for saying as much.
Is Wise preparing indictments for the layers of corruption recently uncovered by the Baltimore County OIG? That office uncovered a corruption scheme involving a director letting a developer illegally avoid millions of dollars in fees. The OIG has also been exposing years of financial misappropriation by former county executive and fundraiser Jim Smith. These are stories involving older powerful white men. The crimes here seem more serious than lying on tax and mortgage forms.
Wise has not received the same media scrutiny in Maryland that he received while working for Congress, despite similar patterns. He is one of the heroes of the media narrative that the feds are saving Baltimore, with the Consent Decree. He is an explicit hero in, and source for, a book on GTTF written by the city’s leading crime reporter, Justin Fenton.
Wise has gotten the most praise for taking down the GTTF, but there were issues with the case. There was a dead witness, Homicide Detective Sean Suiter. The feds basically left his case to his own department to investigate/cover-up what happened.
The GTTF case has resulted in mounds of literature and discussion outside of the trials. What comes through in most of these accounts is that higher-ups received numerous reports of unethical, abusive, and criminal behavior by the officers in question for years. Officials either turned a blind eye or enabled the behavior.
One of the higher-ups, Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere, a white man, was named by one of the GTTF officers as a conspirator in court. He is a prominent character in a recent GTTF report commissioned by the department. He had a reputation in BPD for fixing problems for his buddies, especially Jenkins. Today, Palmere enjoys a comfortable retirement, which began the day after he was named in court. Commissioner Kevin Davis, a white man, also got out before the trials. He was fired while his hands were covered in the fresh mess of the Suiter cover-up. USAO told the public Davis lied about when he knew Suiter was a federal witness. Davis is doing well now. He won a Soros fellowship and teaches college.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, who replaced Davis in 2018 and is Black, was the only high-level BPD commander indicted by USAO during the GTTF investigation. The feds got him on tax issues three months into his administration. It has been reported that De Sousa helped Jenkins with a cover-up in the past, but the feds didn’t nab him on that. De Sousa is no angel, but he was hardly as involved in protecting Jenkins and his friends as Palmere. DeSousa should have paid his taxes, to be sure. We know the feds use financial crimes to bring down the people they find dangerous, like Al Capone. But how are the feds deciding who deserves intense financial scrutiny? The optics aren’t good and contribute to racial tension and corruption in Baltimore.
Broadly, none of the GTTF-related indictments addressed the culture of corruption in BPD. USAO controlled and limited the damage. They did the same with Mosby, by focusing on personal financial crimes unrelated to her job. The white officials that ran her office day-to-day and helped protect dirty officers are comfortable and safe.
USAO’s handling of the Mayor Pugh case also deserves another look. Pugh was convicted for selling her own children’s books in bulk to various agencies and using the sale to curry political favor and other gains. Most of the buyers have been named. The University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) board was deeply involved in the racket. There were a lot of powerful people, mostly older white men, profiting off of Pugh’s schemes, none of which have been indicted. It takes two to commit bribery; the Pugh indictment reads like a one-woman bribery scheme. USAO hasn’t done much to discourage powerful people like Grant from acting corruptly in their own interests in Maryland.
Wise has been pitched by local media as some agent of reform, while zealously prosecuting not just Ravenell for crimes committed as an attorney but Ravenell's own defense attorney and defense investigators, who were found not guilty. Wise's actions put the entire defense bar at risk for zealously defending their clients, which is their legal responsibility.
I wouldn’t have gone so far as to call Wise or his colleagues “racist.” Then, I learned about the Antonio Shropshire case, the subject of a fascinating chapter in one of the GTTF books, I’ve Got a Monster. Shropshire was an associate of one of the GTTF officers and was convicted as part of a heroin conspiracy. USAO brought mostly white witnesses from outside of the city to court to testify as victims of Shropshire’s alleged gang. The feds considered them victims because they had bought drugs from the criminals. Buying drugs is a crime too, but the feds weren’t concerned with that. I wonder, if Pugh went to trial, would USAO have put J.P. Grant on the stand as a victim?
Marilyn Mosby was on a public relations high in the summer of 2020. After the death of George Floyd, she secured a parade of TV talk show appearances and op-ed columns to remind the public that she once charged officers in Freddie Gray’s death. This was just before Baltimore Brew dropped its first article about her exhaustive global travel schedule.
I already published an article for FAIR on Mosby’s 2020 media campaign and the “progressive prosecutor” myth. It covers how she spun her prosecution in the Gray case and then changed her story about that case.
The recent indictment brings attention to another characteristic that has marked Mosby’s leadership since the beginning. A simple way to describe it is that she is often caught lying. A more complete description is that she (and her office) tend to lie and/or act recklessly without foresight and then, rather than acknowledge error, continue to recklessly cover their tracks, making the situation worse. We are seeing this with Mosby’s attorney now claiming that Mosby’s businesses did suffer Covid-related hardships, even though her allies previously claimed those businesses were non-operational.
An obvious recent example was “middle finger-gate.” In May 2021, Mosby put up a middle finger to an activist that said “Free Keith Davis Jr” at her. When he went public with it, including pictures, she denied it, claiming that the pictures only showed her thumb out. The denial actually came from the official government Twitter account of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO). Then, clearer pictures emerged, showing a middle finger. Mosby couldn’t deny it anymore, but her supporters pivoted to how she felt vulnerable as a woman approached by a man.
The unfolding saga of the “do not call list” is another example of the apparent consequences of Mosby’s recklessness. In October 2019, she spoke on a panel where she stated that her office had an “internal sort of notification system” for officers when there are ”credibility issues,” so that her office wouldn’t call them to testify. And she said there were “hundreds” of cops on that list. SAO made the story official in December. Prosecutors testified before a state commission that they had a list of 305 officers they wouldn’t call, so more than 10% of the entire department. Defense attorneys wanted to see the list. If SAO knew cops were untrustworthy, it had exculpatory information that could benefit clients and a legal requirement to turn the evidence over.
Mosby’s office repeatedly refused to turn over the names. The Baltimore Action Legal Team sued and ultimately won. Finally, SAO turned over a list in November 2021, but it only included 91 names, and most of them are no longer with the department; some have been indicted. Of course, SAO wouldn’t call them to testify. Either SAO has knowledge of a huge chunk of BPD officers having credibility issues and won’t share it with defense attorneys; or Mosby didn’t speak clearly, and SAO has been covering for her rather than just acknowledging a mistake. Either way, Mosby isn’t be held accountable by Wise et al. for lies that affect other people, like defendants in Baltimore.
Wise and Mosby
For most of his career, Wise has cultivated a reputation as someone who takes on corruption. Mosby has cultivated the same reputation, beginning with her charges in the Freddie Gray case. Both prosecutors pursue high-profile anti-corruption efforts that identify selected targets, while limiting the fallout and avoiding implicating their own offices or the system broadly. They both benefit from media allies who support their brand marketing. And they both use hints and insinuations to take aim at targets without revealing all of the goods.
In February 2018, Mosby’s office fired Assistant State’s Attorney Anna Mantegna. This has been mostly reported as a story of Mosby’s recklessness and/or covering up, but it’s also a story of similar behavior from Wise. In court, Wise announced twice over a year that GTTF Sergeant Jenkins named an ASA from Mosby's office as someone who leaked the federal investigation to him. There was intensive media and social media speculation that followed.
Schenning wrote a letter to Mosby explaining that Mantegna had only warned Jenkins about a dirty cop on his squad who had a Frank’s Hearing to determine his credibility; she assumed Jenkins was clean. Jenkins told the feds about that conversation during plea negotiations, and it somehow became the story of her leaking the FBI investigation. Schenning insisted in the letter that there was no evidence Mantegna actually leaked the FBI investigation or knew about it. His letter left room for Mosby's office to investigate further. Instead, she fired Mantegna days later.
Schenning’s letter to Mosby was made public but there were more letters back and forth between the two in 2018 that were released but not reported on. Schenning is extremely careful in all of his correspondence not to say outright what appears clear: Wise had no evidence of an SAO leak of the FBI investigation, but he did cause the public to believe there was one. Mosby makes a fair point in her response: By claiming someone in SAO leaked the investigation, Wise created negative speculation around her office. He kept the speculation alive in media interviews.
The correspondence also shows that Mosby knew Mantegna hadn't leaked the federal investigation. She claims in one letter she fired Mantegna for “leaking” the Frank’s Hearing to Jenkins, even though it was in open court and public record. Nevertheless, like Wise, Mosby kept the speculation about Mantegna alive through cryptic media statements. By firing her, Mosby made it seem like she handled the alleged leak in her office.
Wise didn’t have to recklessly discuss an ASA leak in court and keep that story afloat, covering his own mistakes. Mosby didn’t have to recklessly fire Mantegna without an investigation or clear public explanation. Mosby and Wise are adversaries, but the Mantegna case reveals some of what they have in common.
Recommended: A good piece by the Daily Record about Leo Wise’s prosecution of a lawyer and his defense team that says quite a bit more about prosecutorial overreach and targeting.