Pyramid probe ordered

November 27, 1994|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Sun Staff Writer

Harford County Sheriff Robert E. Comes has ordered an internal investigation of his own agency because of rumors of widespread involvement by deputies in financial pyramid schemes.

Sgt. Joseph Nason, the sheriff's internal affairs investigator, said he will begin his probe tomorrow, his first day at work after a vacation.

Sergeant Nason said in an interview last week that he has received no specific complaints or allegations about deputies' involvement in pyramid schemes.

But he added, "I've heard on the grapevine that a lot of agency people have at least been invited to participate in these schemes."

Sheriff Comes distributed a memo nine days ago to remind personnel in his office that pyramid schemes are illegal in Maryland, "and he ordered me to look into the matter," the sergeant said.

A pyramid based in Washington, called "Friends Helping Friends," surfaced about two weeks ago in Harford, according to State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly.

Mr. Cassilly said about 10 days ago that he had received three or four complaints regarding the pyramid schemes.

Apparently, some participants mistakenly believed they were not breaking state laws because they "cashed out," collecting their profits, in Washington, the prosecutor said.

But Maryland law prohibits promoting or advertising pyramid schemes, Mr. Cassilly said.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran ruled recently that soliciting someone in Maryland to go to Washington to participate in the pyramid schemes is a criminal misdemeanor under state law.

Sergeant Nason declined to speculate on how long his investigation will take.

"I may end up talking to everyone within the sheriff's office before I'm through," he said.

The sergeant said his focus will be internal.

"I can compel testimony, but that cannot be used in any criminal investigation," he said.

When the sergeant's investigation is completed, the information he gathers could be used to discipline anyone determined to have violated agency policy.

"Someone from the criminal investigation division may also be ordered to conduct a criminal investigation," Sergeant Nason said.

The results of any criminal investigation would be turned over to Mr. Cassilly for possible prosecution, officials said.

Rumors also have linked volunteer firefighters in Harford to the pyramid scheme operation, the sergeant said.

"If my investigation uncovers information involving those outside the sheriff's office, I must turn that information over to Mr. Cassilly," he said. "The final decision on prosecuting anyone is up to the state's attorney."

Sheriff-elect Joseph P. Meadows, who will take office Dec. 5, said he will assess the pyramid situation when he takes over, "if, in fact, there is a situation to assess."

Mr. Meadows said he would consider it "behavior unbecoming a deputy" if anyone in the sheriff's office is found to be involved in a pyramid scheme.

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