Commissioner Frederick guilty of extortion, malfeasance in office

Princess Anne Commissioner Lionel Frederick, left, and Commissioners Dennis Williams, pictured in November 2015. Commissioner Frederick is now convicted of extortion and malfeasance for having offered to fix the 2016 town election so no one would run against Mr. Williams.

Princess Anne Commissioner Lionel Frederick, left, and Commissioners Dennis Williams, pictured in November 2015. Commissioner Frederick is now convicted of extortion and malfeasance for having offered to fix the 2016 town election so no one would run against Mr. Williams.

PRINCESS ANNE — Princess Anne Town Commissioner Lionel D. Frederick II was found guilty Nov. 15 of extortion as a government official and malfeasance in office following a court trial in Somerset County Circuit Court. Presiding over the case was visiting Wicomico County Circuit Court Judge S. James Sarbanes.

Remaining free on his own recognizance, the judge ordered a pre-sentence investigation. The felony charge of extortion has a maximum sentence of 10 years and/or a $10,000 fine, while the common law misconduct charge has no prescribed maximum sentence. Frederick’s attorney Wm. A. Lee Clarke said an appeal with the Court of Special Appeals would be the next step after sentencing.

In the meantime a peace order that prevented Frederick from even going to town hall was modified by Judge Sarbanes so that the first-term at-large commissioner can attend meetings but “exercise common sense” in his interactions with Commissioner Dennis Williams. He is to have no other contact with the District 2 commissioner by phone or through social media. “Stay within the bounds of common sense,” the judge said.

Whether or not the town charter or code would prohibit Frederick from continuing as a commissioner is not immediately known.

The case against the 25-year-old UMES graduate who was elected in 2014 started about a month before the June 2016 town election. Frederick approached Williams about an unnamed person who wanted to run in District 2, but that for $5,000 he (Frederick) could dissuade that individual from being on the ballot. Williams contacted authorities about the offer, and through recorded surveillance additional information about the deal was learned.

With police knowledge Williams paid $2500 with a commitment to make payment of the second $2500 after the filing deadline had passed. Frederick was arrested May 9, shortly after the first transaction.

Special prosecutor Kristen Schultz of the Wicomico County State’s Attorney’s Office prosecuted the case, telling the judge “we’re here because [Frederick] is a councilman,” adding that the circumstances are “absolutely under the color of his office” and “it’s absolutely criminal activity.”

She told the court that Williams “is not just paying for the possibility, he is paying for the outcome,” of someone not filing against him, comparing the second payment to “a kickback.”

Clarke argued that this case “may smell bad” but it was not theft or extortion. He relied on a Maryland Court of Appeals case State v. Rendelman which found that a settlement payment was not extortion, however Judge Sarbanes said the case before him was “distinguishable” as Frederick acted “under the color of his office.”

The judge said some of the agreed to facts in the case, such as comments taken down during surveillance such as “Put the letter in the mailbox for me,” indicated that Frederick was “operating in a secretive nature.”

Frederick told Williams that what he was seeking through the payment was not unethical, but “just politics.” His defense counsel argued that there may have been some civil sanction for this, or one in the town code, but as a criminal act of extortion in Maryland this didn’t stand the test. He said whether or not an alleged candidate ran against Williams “has no nexus” to Frederick as a commissioner. That kind of thing could occur by a private citizen, Clarke said.

Even the judge said there are times in politics that candidates are told it’s not their time or to wait, “maybe not overtly” but the question is whether what Frederick did was criminal.

“This might be the politics of Mr. Frederick,” said Schultz, the special prosecutor, but the state “is saying it’s illegal.” “We can say ‘It smells funny’” and that “it’s politics today” but “it’s absolutely criminal activity.”

Schultz said Williams could not let Frederick’s offer pass without action being taken, and it would not be legal even if the police had decided to not go forward with surveillance. She acknowledged to the judge that “it would be different” if Frederick had offered the deal just once and never spoke of it again, and she conceded the theft charge was the weakest of the six counts against the defendant.

Sarbanes found Frederick not guilty of theft of $1,000 to $10,000; extortion of the same value; extortion between government officials; and a second misconduct charge of misfeasance while in office. Having found the commissioner guilty of malfeasance, the judge said “I don’t think I can do both.”

At this time, no sentencing date had been set. Ultimately, Williams ran unopposed to retain his commissioner seat.

Richard Crumbacker is the General Manager of the County Times. He can be reached at RCrumbacker@newszap.com

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