As critics of Martin O'Malley sensed a new political vulnerability, the governor insisted Tuesday that last week's indictment of inmates and correctional officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center was "a positive achievement" in Maryland's fight against violent gangs.
A day after returning from a weeklong trade mission to Israel, O'Malley said that the state instigated and acted as a full partner in the federal investigation that found widespread corruption and smuggling at the city jail. He credited Public Safety Secretary Gary D. Maynard, who has come under fire, with setting up the joint prison task force that drove the investigation.
"We initiated this task force with this goal in mind of going after gangs," O'Malley, a Democrat, said in an interview.
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He said the indictments were not the end of a long-running effort to root out corruption and dismantle violent gangs in the state's prisons.
"We're not done yet," O'Malley said. "I share the public's revulsion at these allegations. And we have a zero-tolerance policy toward corruption of any kind, including corruption in public safety, law enforcement and corrections."
But the governor's characterization of the indictments as a sign of progress brought scorn from his political opponents.
"This governor is completely out of touch, and his phony positive spin on this disgraceful failure of leadership is completely unacceptable," said Larry Hogan, chairman of the Republican-oriented group Change Maryland and a former aide to GOP Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
O'Malley, Hogan charged, has shown an "absolute failure of leadership and a gross dereliction of duty."
The revelation of deeply embedded corruption at the city jail came at a time O'Malley has been drawing attention in national Democratic circles, with a successful legislative session behind him and improving economic numbers in the state. He has been one of four names — along with Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — on virtually every national pundit's short list of potential Democratic presidential contenders in 2016.
But the federal indictment threatens to tarnish the governor's record, some political observers said.
"There's no doubt whatsoever this will be an issue used against him in a presidential race," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Sabato said the situation at the detention center "is no garden-variety prison scandal" and "about as bad as I have seen anywhere, ever."
Last week, a federal grand jury handed up an indictment charging 25 people, including 13 correctional officers, with participating in a smuggling scheme that brought marijuana, cigarettes, painkillers and cellphones to detainees at the state-run detention center.
Gang-related smuggling of contraband is an issue for jails and prisons throughout the country. But the alleged scale of the gang control in Baltimore — and lurid details of correctional officers having sex with prisoners — drew national attention. Four correctional officers were said to have become pregnant by Black Guerrilla Family leader and alleged jailhouse kingpin Tavon White.
National media outlets such as Fox News and National Public Radio were drawn to the story by O'Malley's increasingly open expressions of interest in a run for the presidency. Fox's Bill O'Reilly called for Maynard's firing.
A top FBI official said Tuesday that calls for Maynard's ouster are misplaced.
"To punish the guy for coming forward and asking for federal assistance is absolutely the wrong message," said Rick McFeely, executive assistant director of the FBI and a former head of the bureau's Baltimore office.
McFeely said the federal investigation into gang activity at the jail didn't gain traction until Maynard appealed for federal help and offered his department's full cooperation.
In an interview Tuesday, the top federal prosecutor in Maryland also backed up O'Malley's account. Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney in Baltimore, said the public safety department "actively sought and supported" the investigation.
"They were proactive throughout," Rosenstein said.
While taking responsibility for what he acknowledged was a "mess," Maynard has said he has no intention of resigning.
Rosenstein said the task force of state, federal and local authorities began its activities about February 2011, shortly after O'Malley began his second term. He said the results of the investigation came as no surprise to its members.
"Everybody in the task force anticipated it would result in the prosecution of a significant number of correctional officers," Rosenstein said.
But if the early national media coverage becomes the common wisdom, the detention center problems could strike a blow at O'Malley's image. As Baltimore's mayor and Maryland's governor he has portrayed himself as a hands-on, data-driven manager and a progressive who is nonetheless tough on crime.
Less than two months into his administration in 2007, he made a widely praised decision to suddenly close down the House of Correction, an infamously dangerous and outmoded prison in Jessup.
O'Malley noted Tuesday that initiative was managed by Maynard.
"Secretary Maynard is one of the best public safety secretaries in the entire nation," O'Malley said.
Federal law enforcement officials have targeted the Black Guerrilla Family's operations inside Maryland prisons in the past. In an investigation that concluded in 2009, they uncovered a scheme in which gang members used corrections employees to smuggle heroin into other corrections facilities.
Donald Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the ultimate political impact of the prison issue depends on how O'Malley handles it going forward.
"It could tarnish O'Malley. It could also rebound in his favor," Norris said. "It's a major problem that has to be fixed."