State’s Attorney Candidates Raise Campaign $; A Backer Bashes Rival

May 2, 2018

The three candidates running for Cecil County State’s Attorney in the June Republican primary have drawn very different bases of financial support for their campaigns, with one candidate drawing most of her support from just three aligned donors, another tapping the traditional lawyer donations, and the third relying mostly on small donors and his own pocket.

Between the time she created her campaign committee on 2/8/2018 and 4/10/2018, Amanda Bessicks, a 34-year-old assistant State’s Attorney in Cecil County and a political newcomer, received donations of $14,350, plus an “in-kind” donation of a billboard, valued at $1,000, from attorney John Downs. She received a $1,000 donation listed on state records as coming from “Edward D. Rollins,” which Bessicks clarified was from Edward D.E. “Ellis” Rollins, the former Cecil County State’s Attorney, who hired Bessicks to work in that office.

Ellis Rollins resigned his post after his conviction on two counts stemming from an indecent exposure case involving his conduct at an Ocean City hotel. Since Rollins’ departure last year, the office has been run on an interim basis by Steve Trostle, who was named to the post by the judges of the Circuit Court. Trostle, who does not live in Cecil County and was thus ineligible to run for the post here, is currently a candidate for Harford County State’s Attorney.

Bessicks also received a $1,000 donation from a business entity, TGM Properties, LLC, of Earleville. Bessicks identified the business as owned by members of the McCoy family who lost a young woman, Terri, who was brutally murdered in a home invasion in Chesapeake City. The county prosecutor’s office obtained multiple convictions in the case. Bessicks said she was not involved in that case.

Most of Bessicks’ donations—a total of $12,000—come from just three donors who have been aligned in civil litigation against Cecil County government and a fight with the state over the future of the Donaldson Brown Center in Port Deposit. Gabrielle Buck and her son, James, of Mt. Ararat Farm, each donated $4,000 to Bessicks, as did Wendy Culberson, a lawyer who represents the Buck family.

Ms. Buck’s grandfather, C. Donaldson Brown, donated the 25-room Georgian mansion that sits on 23 acres with a panoramic view of the Susquehanna River to the State of Maryland many years ago, for use as a conference center operated by the University of Maryland. But upkeep on the aging mansion and its grounds became too costly and the university offered it for sale, ultimately signing a contract with a developer who wanted to renovate the property and turn it into a high-end resort and conference center. The Buck family belatedly objected, after previously declining to offer its own bid to reclaim the property, and has sought to block the sale by pressuring the state Board of Public Works to prevent a necessary declaration of the property as “surplus” so the sale could proceed. The board three times postponed any action on its agenda and it has not been rescheduled. Buck says she now wants to buy back the property and turn it into an agricultural education center.

The Bucks have also filed suit against Cecil County government, claiming “breach of contract,” because it has not signed off on a proposed settlement of a zoning violation case. The Buck family built a motocross track on their own farm, which adjoins the Donaldson Brown Center, and the county maintained it was done improperly and in violation of zoning on the agricultural area.

Those issues are civil matters which are not in the purview or authority of the State’s Attorney’s office. Culberson said she had not discussed those matters with Bessicks, who said the same thing to Cecil Times “It’s apples and oranges,” Culberson said. The lawyer said she recruited the Bucks to support the Bessicks campaign because they were dissatisfied with their own experiences with the State’s Attorney’s office and other prosecutors on an unrelated case involving property damage by a tenant of a Buck-owned house.

Culberson, who practices family law in Elkton and frequently deals with victims of domestic violence, said she was impressed with Bessicks’ handling of cases she was familiar with and had encouraged her to run.

Bessicks has specialized in handling cases involving child abuse and sex crimes since January. She said her guiding principle in handling all cases is to “listen to the victims” of a crime. She said that too often in the past, local prosecutors have not kept victims informed of the status of cases and taken the time to explain the law and the court process to them.

Asked if she was concerned about the proportion of her campaign funds coming from just three inter-related donors, Bessicks said she was “new to the political game” but felt that contributors were supporting her because of her pro-victim philosophy. “I felt the office wasn’t going in that direction,” she said, and that was why she decided to run for State’s Attorney. Bessicks stayed above the fray by not criticizing either of her two rivals for the post directly in an interview with Cecil Times.

But Culberson was sharply critical of Kevin Urick, a veteran prosecutor in the office and a candidate in the June Republican primary, claiming that he treated a client “like crap” and questioned the severity of injuries sustained by another person who was a victim of domestic violence.

Although Culberson did not identify the clients by name, Urick recognized some of the cases from details of the matters. “Wendy is very passionate on this issue,” he said, and sometimes lets “emotions” overrule the realities of the law and the limits of prosecutorial power.

“We’re not a policy making body,” Urick said of the prosecutor’s role in court. “But if I were elected State’s Attorney, I’d have a bully pulpit to advocate for changes in the law” by the General Assembly. He cited a case in which he aggressively sought enforcement of a court-ordered “no contact” order against an accused domestic violence suspect, to bar him from approaching a victim while the case was awaiting trial. But a judge ruled against him due to a technical point, since the defendant had not been served with relevant paperwork before a court appearance.

In his campaign, Urick has taken a very different tack from either of his well-financed rivals. He filed an affidavit with the state Board of Elections stating that he had not raised or spent over $1,000 for his campaign as of January. He said he recently held a small fundraising event at Lee’s Landing and did not expect to have another event before the primary. He said he was largely self-funding his own campaign because he did not want to be “beholden” to special interests or members of the local bar, and he had taken a similar stance when he ran for a judicial seat four years ago.

“What I’m proud about is who is supporting me,” Urick said of his small donations base. He said a man he sent to drug court several years ago to compel him into treatment came to his event to thank him for “changing my life.” And a victim of domestic violence attended to tell him she was changing her political party affiliation to vote for him in the GOP primary because she was grateful for his tough prosecution of her assailant.

The final candidate is another veteran prosecutor, Karl H. Fockler, who reported receiving $8,311 in donations to his campaign as of 4/10/2018, plus another $425 from raffle ticket purchases. His donation report lists many Elkton lawyers and his largest donation, $3,500, came from a business, Complete Recycling Group, LLC of Elkton. Fockler also received a generous $2,500 “in kind” donation of food and services from The Wellwood restaurant in Charlestown which provided space and refreshments for a fundraising event.

Fockler’s campaign faces some inherent questions about how he and his office, if he were elected, would interact with the county’s Circuit Court bench if his brother, Edwin B. Fockler IV, were elected in the separate contest for a judicial seat that is at stake in this year’s election. Would a Fockler jurist have to recuse himself from criminal cases sent to the court by a Fockler-headed prosecutor’s office? Or would defense attorneys challenge cases brought by a Fockler-led prosecutor’s office and seek trial venues outside the county due to a Fockler/prosecutor, Fockler/jurist appearance of conflict of interest?

Cecil Times messaged Karl Fockler on his office phone, the only contact number listed on his filings with the Board of Elections. We will update this report if he responds to the message seeking comment.

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