Frank DeFilippo: The Fly on the Wall may be an Electronic Bug

Today’s eavesdropping equipment can be as simple as a cell phone or as complex as a satellite system. Columnist Frank DeFilippo chronicles the establishment of the state’s strict wiretap law, and the history of bugs in Maryland politics. Photo from Pexels.com.

Maryland’s strict two-party consent wiretap law that helped to snare a former top aide to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) was the result of a political feud between former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) and Baltimore political boss James H. “Jack” Pollack over a questionable secret recording involving what appeared to be a bribe or payoff and a deal for a judgeship.

The wiretap law was championed by Mandel in 1963 after his nasty public break-away from the Pollack political organization following the release of a scratchy, almost indecipherable recording of an alleged secret exchange of $50,000 between Pollack and Gov. Millard J. Tawes (D) and the purported promise of a judgeship for political support in the campaign for governor that year.

Tawes was locked in a tight three-way primary race with George P. Mahoney and David Hume in which the abolition of slot machines in four Southern Maryland counties — St. Mary’s, Charles, Calvert and Anne Arundel — was the key issue.

The exchange purportedly involved a judgeship that Pollack had long sought for his son-in-law, Paul Dorf, who began his political career under Pollack’s sponsorship in the House of Delegates and later moved on to the Senate. Pollack claimed that the recording backed his charge that Tawes reneged on his promise to appoint Dorf to a judgeship.

Pollack played the recording for a select group of reporters at a hastily called late-night news conference at a suite in the old Emerson Hotel in downtown Baltimore that he kept reserved for political meetings (which most close associates assumed was bugged) in what was at the time regarded as the official headquarters of the Maryland Democratic Party, which also maintained a suite in the hotel (it was speculated that Pollack had bugged that room, too). The state Republican Party was identified with the Lord Baltimore Hotel.

The recording was impounded by Baltimore State’s Attorney Saul Harris, who was beholden to a rival political organization in Northwest Baltimore’s Fifth District, that of bosslet Sam Stofberg. The recording mysteriously disappeared from the state’s attorney’s office safe and eventually became the property of the IRS, many suspected, by the fine hand of Stofberg. The IRS demanded that Pollack pay taxes on the $50,000 he allegedly received from Tawes.

Maryland is one of 11 states that legally require that all parties in a conversation consent to being recorded. Roy C. McGrath, the top staff aide to Hogan and former executive director of the Maryland Environmental Service, was charged in state and federal court earlier this month, in part, under the 58-year-old mutual consent wiretap law and for other crimes including fraud, embezzlement and felony theft.

McGrath resigned as Hogan’s chief of staff more than a year ago after it was revealed that he received a year’s severance pay of $233,647, and other benefits, when he left MES to join Hogan’ staff. Among the charges resulting from the joint federal-state investigation was that McGrath had secretly recorded conversations with Hogan and other state officials without their knowledge or consent which violated the state’s wiretap law.

Law enforcement agencies are usually required to obtain a court order to record conversations, and ordinarily the person being monitored is notified of the action by the phone carrier about 10 days after the recording begins.

Mandel was among the bright young Jewish lawyers that Pollack sponsored and advanced to public office. Mandel was an influential member of the House of Delegates in 1963 and on the ascent — chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and chairman of the Baltimore City delegation.

Early in the 1963 session, Mandel would become speaker of the House, elevated by vote of his peers to replace Speaker A. Gordon Boone, of Baltimore County, who was indicted, convicted and jailed in Maryland’s first savings and loan scandal in the early 1960s.

The questionable Pollack recording, its authenticity never proven, gave Mandel a chance to break away from the Pollock machine (if in public view only) and organize what was then called a “third force” in Fifth District politics, rivaling Pollack and the other major domo of city politics, Irv Kovens, with whom Mandel would eventually ally.

From the Pollack organization, Mandel took with him Del. Richard Rombro, City Councilman Sol Liss and Senate Reading Clerk Donald Hurwitz to form the nucleus of the new political group. Others also scrambled to join Mandel’s faction, which was the beginning of Pollack’s decline and fall as the dominant political leader in Baltimore politics and a powerful political broker across the state. Mandel’s break cleanly established him on the side of Tawes, who Pollack opposed in support of Mahoney.

From the Pollack experience onward, Mandel was obsessed with electronic eavesdropping.

Upon assuming the governorship and settling into its regal office on the second floor of the State House, Mandel wondered aloud — a process that usually sent aides and bureaucrats scurrying for answers — why the handsome carved marble fireplace at the center of the office was never used.

Learning that it had been blocked sometime earlier to prevent birds from using the chimney to invade the governor’s office, Mandel ordered the fireplace to be returned to working order so its glow could mellow the office and soften tense moments during meetings and negotiations.

When the chimney and the fireplace were restored, there was a stunning discovery and immediate outrage. Dangling at the bottom of the chimney on a length of cord from the top was a microphone that, theoretically, could monitor every word that was spoken in the governor’s office.

There was no telling how long it had been suspended there or whether it was still a working eavesdrop on some of the state’s supposedly best kept secrets and most sensitive political discussions.

From that point on, Mandel was panicky about his private conversations. He ordered the State Police to conduct regular sweeps with their electronic detection devices of all offices and phones on the second floor of the State House at night when the area was mainly empty.

And through some mysterious arrangement, they were later joined by a private detective, Marshall Myer, a Baltimore political ally of Sen. Harry “Softshoes” McGuirk, and a social and business pal of Baltimore Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau (together Myer and Pomerleau produced an anti-communist newsletter), in the hunt for wiretaps and other illegal electronic eavesdropping equipment, commonly called “bugs,” many the size and shape of a quarter that could be attached or installed almost anywhere — in the talking end of the cord phones of the era, under a desk, in a lamp, etc. Today’s eavesdrop equipment can be as simple as a cell phone or as complex as a satellite system.

That episode was merely the warm-up before Sinatra.

In the fall of 1970, during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, Mandel’s Troopers, and their newly acquired private detective, were doing a routine sweep of the executive offices for listening devices. An alarm went off on one of their detection devices as it hovered over a red phone on a cabinet behind the governor’s desk.

The search team was stunned. The red phone was the hot line connected directly to the president’s office in the White House, just as there were identical red phones in every governor’s office in the nation. The 50 phones would ring simultaneously if the president picked up his phone at a time of national emergency to alert the governors to federal action or to avoid national panic.

What the Troopers discovered was that the phone in Mandel’s office was wired in reverse to act as a listening device instead of a receiver. In other words, the president — any president — could listen at will to any conversations in Mandel’s office, and, presumably, the office of any other governor.

Mandel was fuming at the report the next day. It was decided that Mandel would alert a few friendly governors to the discovery, but only after the story was handed to Jack Anderson, the muckraking Washington columnist who thrived on such skullduggery.

And after a demonstration of the rigged phone to Anderson during an interview in Mandel’s office and how it operated as a listening agent would Mandel rip the phone connection out of the wall. Other governors felt motivated to do the same.

By December 1970, the immediate political world learned, or at least sensed, that Mandel was engaged in extracurricular activities. The tipoff was an accident shortly after midnight involving an unmarked State Police car in which Mandel was a passenger and was severely injured.

Four years later, the skeleton waltzed out of the closet. In August 1974, Mandel, legally divorced for a year, would marry Jeanne Blackistone Dorsey, the divorced mother of four and 18 years younger than Mandel.

Between times, the Nixon Administration believed they could cash in on Mandel’s double life.

U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell’s Department of Justice sent lawyers to St. Mary’s County to obtain a court order to place a wiretap on Jeanne’s phone at her Leonardtown home. The Justice Department agents failed to do their homework on the inbred nature of Maryland politics.

The judge who was to process the order was (name withheld) godfather to two of Jeanne’s children and whose daughter worked briefly in the second-floor press office in the State House. To wit: Mandel had earlier appointed the judge to the bench. Mitchell’s buggers never had a chance.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.