Posted: Jan. 18, 2007
JOHN ATKINS CALLING
By Celia Cohen
Carl C. Danberg, finishing out his time as attorney general, was prompted into offering to meet last month with state Rep. John C. Atkins after his domestic violence case went to court.
The prompt was Atkins himself, who telephoned twice. As a legislator, this was one defendant who could count on getting through, no matter the legal dangers the Millsboro Republican was creating.
If Atkins was not troubled by how wrong it was for the attorney general and a defendant to discuss an ongoing case, Danberg was. It would be a violation of the lawyers' rules of conduct.
On the second call, Danberg put Atkins off with an invitation to discuss how he had been treated once the case was resolved. They met Dec. 7, three days after the court date, with a fresh show of political muscle from Atkins as he brought along John R. Matlusky, the Republican national committeeman who is the House Republican's chief aide, and John F. Brady, the Sussex County Republican recorder of deeds and House counsel, in his role as Atkins' private attorney.
Danberg, a Democrat who was appointed attorney general for 13 months to fill a vacancy, revealed the telephone calls Wednesday during a session of the Senate Executive Committee, where he appeared for a hearing before being confirmed as the next corrections commissioner.
"Both times I told him, I really can't discuss the case with you," Danberg said. "I offered to meet with him at the end of the case."
Danberg said Atkins first called within 24 hours of his arrest on Oct. 29 for offensive touching while arguing with his wife Heather, and then he called again after the Attorney General's Office offered a plea agreement that Atkins later accepted -- a year of probation with the charge expunged at the end of it if he completes domestic-violence counseling and stays out of trouble.
Atkins could not be contacted Thursday for an explanation of his motivation in calling Danberg.
There could be clues, however, in other calls that Delaware Grapevine has learned Atkins made. He telephoned downstate judges about his case, apparently probing for justification to challenge his sentence because he considered even the counseling and the probation to be an imposition on his life as a legislator. The judges were proper judges, and the calls got Atkins nowhere.
Atkins also mentioned the terms of his sentence while meeting with Danberg -- at a time when Danberg was expected to be nominated as corrections commissioner, supervising the probation system. Danberg brushed him off.
With the calls to the judges, Atkins earned the Triple Crown for pushing, pushing, pushing the system by burdening all three branches of government about his travails.
He got to the executive branch with Danberg. In the bifurcated legislative branch, the House Ethics Committee is looking into Atkins' conduct, and the Senate Executive Committee asked Danberg to elaborate about his meeting with Atkins. The calls to the judges dragged in the judicial branch.
As the House Ethics Committee launched its inquiry this week, Atkins switched lawyers -- jettisoning Brady to end his murky role as both House counsel and Atkins' private attorney. Brady is not participating in the committee's work.
Atkins' new lawyer is Charles M. Oberly III, once a three-term Democratic attorney general, now in private practice. Oberly has the right experience. His last troubled celebrity client was Thomas J. Capano with his lethal combination of charm and violence.
Oberly's assignment appears to be limiting the Ethics Committee's scope to what could be construed as Atkins' only official act -- displaying his legislative identification card in Maryland to the Ocean City police officers who let him go without arresting him for speeding or drunken driving in the hours before his fight with his wife.
Oberly wants the committee's five members -- three from the majority Republican and two from the Democratic minority leadership -- to focus on whether or not Atkins took advantage of his office that night and to leave alone the fight with his wife. "They probably need to draw some line," Oberly said.
That approach overlooks that it was Atkins himself who made public scrutiny of his domestic dispute fair game. He issued a press release saying, "full and open public disclosure is called for," and then proceeded not to do it by going on WGMD News Radio 92.7 and denying that alcohol was involved, when police in both Ocean City and Millsboro said it was. He also has refused to release the Millsboro police report.
"The public official is paying the price of being a public official," Oberly said.
Is there something wrong with that?