Judge guilty of wetlands violation

By SCOTT DAUGHERTY
The Capital, June 03, 2008

A Baltimore District Court judge was convicted yesterday of illegally dumping construction debris in the water to repair his Pasadena shoreline. But despite the conviction on his record, Judge Askew W. Gatewood Jr. will continue to serve on the state’s District Court bench — at least for now.

Darryl Pressley, spokesman for the District Court System, said the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities may investigate the matter and determine Judge Gatewood’s fate later this year.

Judge Gatewood, who maintains he is innocent, was convicted yesterday of one count of unlawful filling of wetlands without a license after entering into a plea agreement with the state.

He pleaded not guilty, but did not contest the state’s version of events — that in 2006 he allowed dump trucks to dump several tons of cinder blocks, rebar and bathroom fixtures along the shoreline outside his Bay Road home.

Judge Gatewood agreed yesterday to remove the debris and pay $10,000 in fines to the State Wetlands Restoration Fund. At the same time, Judge
Gatewood agreed to pay an additional $5,000 in fines to settle a separate civil lawsuit filed by the county over the debris.

“The law humbles everyone, including judges,” said County Executive John R. Leopold, who complained publicly last year that state officials were dragging their feet in the case.

Circuit Court Judge Eugene Lerner placed Judge Gatewood on unsupervised probation for a year. He said he would consider granting Judge Gatewood a probation before judgement — ultimately letting him clear his record — after he fixes up his shoreline.

In exchange for Judge Gatewood’s plea, Assistant Attorney General Bernard Penner dropped 11 other charges against him. Those charges carried up to seven years in prison and $65,000 in fines.

“It was a good resolution of this matter. It gets the site cleanup started promptly,” said Mr. Penner, explaining why he offered the plea agreement. He said that both the state and county must sign off on the new shoreline work.

There is no jail sentence or additional fine to ensure he does repair his shoreline, though. Mr. Penner said Judge Gatewood’s desire to clear his record and receive a probation before judgement is all the guarantee he needed. He said he didn’t argue for a harsher sentence because he couldn’t have received one.

“Our chances of getting jail time for a first-time offender is relatively low to non-existent,” he said.

County Attorney Jonathan A. Hodgson said that if Judge Gatewood doesn’t repair the shoreline to the county’s satisfaction, he will seek to find the judge in contempt of court. That, he said, could lead a county judge to send Judge Gatewood to jail.

County inspectors in October 2006 found the debris along 520 feet of shoreline behind the homes of Judge Gatewood and his neighbors, David and Karen Leimbach. At that time, the county notified the Environmental Crimes Unit of the Attorney General’s Office.

After seeing no action against the judge for more than a year, Mr. Leopold wrote Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

“The fact that this violator is a prominent personage creates the unfortunate impression that he is receiving special treatment,” Mr. Leopold wrote. “This case is the most egregious violation of its nature within the collective memory of our inspectors and attorneys. ... Judge Gatewood has done irreparable harm to the waters of the Patapsco River and the Chesapeake Bay and deserves to be punished.”

On Nov. 15, the state and county sued Judge Gatewood under civil statutes for apparent violations at his property on the Patapsco River.

And on Jan. 18, the state criminally charged Judge Gatewood with unlawfully filling in wetland, unlawful dumping, water pollution and nine counts of construction without a sediment control plan.

In court documents filed earlier this year, John F. Dougherty, one of Judge Gatewood’s attorneys, argued his client was innocent. He said Judge Gatewood legally repaired his property’s shoreline in 2003 after Hurricane Isabel and that his client doesn’t know who was responsible for “whatever happened in October 2006.”

Mr. Penner said yesterday that aerial shoreline survey photographs prove that Mr. Gatewood’s shoreline changed between 2005 and 2007.

In February, Judge Gatewood, who is black, decried the state’s prosecution of him, saying it was politically and perhaps even racially motivated.

His attorneys said several technicalities should prevent the state from pursuing the case. They argued the charges should be dismissed on the grounds that the charging documents were not properly signed and the statute of limitations had expired.

In April, however, Circuit Court Judge Eugene M. Lerner ruled against Judge Gatewood on those motions and allowed the case to proceed to trial. Eighty-three potential jurors went to the County’s Circuit Courthouse in Annapolis yesterday only to learn at the last minute they were not needed for Judge Gatewood’s trial.

The Leimbachs settled their dispute with the state and county late last year. They agreed to pay a $5,000 fine for a wetlands violation and to remove the debris that was placed in the tidal waters. The outcome of that settlement was not available this morning.

Mr. Leopold yesterday praised his staff’s handling of the civil lawsuit. He said that judge must pay $5,000 of a potential $6,500 fine. And if Judge Gatewood doesn’t repair the shoreline, he will have to pay the last $1,500.

“This cried out for sanctions,” he said.

Mr. Leopold was more reserved in his comments regarding the plea agreement Judge Gatewood reached with the Attorney General’s Office.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘happy.’ I am pleased a settlement has occurred that will ... require the clean up of the property,” he said.

(Revised June 2008)