City police want secret fund

Money would aid investigations, department says

January 10, 2001|By Peter Hermann and Gady A. Epstein | Peter Hermann and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Police Department had a secret house in the suburbs for its internal affairs detectives. Now, it wants a secret quarter-million-dollar fund to conduct what officials call "special investigations."

The department is asking the city Board of Estimates for authority to set aside $250,000 of already budgeted money into a fund to allow police to buy services and materials secretly. The police want to bypass the normal bidding and public review process for certain purchases over $5,000 so they won't compromise special investigations, the department says.

A vote is scheduled today by the Board of Estimates, the panel that approves spending by city agencies. Mayor Martin O'Malley controls three of the board's five votes, and the Finance Department has recommended the request be approved.

But the Board of Estimates' chairwoman, City Council President Sheila Dixon, and city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, who also sits on the board, are not satisfied by the Police Department's explanation of why it should be able to skirt normal spending procedures.

"We really need to understand how the specifics of what is purchased could actually harm an investigation," said Jason Young, a spokesman for Dixon. "If they are buying two binoculars and three camcorders, how does that compromise an investigation?"

A money-saver, police say

Police officials argue that the proposal will save money. They said keeping some purchases secret, such as advanced listening devices, will prevent criminals from developing ways to counter the investigative tools and prevent an escalating technology war.

"The entire reasoning behind the department requesting this money in this confidential manner is because it is going to be used in confidential investigations," said department spokeswoman Ragina C. Averella.

The idea for the secret fund, she said, came after the Board of Estimates held a public hearing on technology used to track cellular phone conversations - a device police had wanted to keep secret.

"The money will be used for technology," Averella said. "By making that technology public, it impairs our ability to properly investigate and it has the potential to endanger the lives of officers."

The Baltimore area's second-largest police department, Baltimore County's, has no such fund. Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County executive, said budget director Fred Homan would not authorize such blanket spending.

"The very idea sends him into cardiac arrest," Armacost said. "No one has such a pot of money for discretionary use."

But experts say a number of other large police departments and federal law enforcement agencies have similar authority over expenditures.

"It is commonly done that you have a fund that is not exposed to as many hands or prying eyes," said Michael R. Bromwich, inspector general with the U.S. Justice Department from 1995 until 1999 and now a partner in the Washington law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson.

"But ... there needs to be a system set up by which the funds can be audited or the funds can be traced so the people can be sure that everything is being done properly," he said.

Pratt said yesterday she has some concerns.

"I'm opposed to any agency spending money without fiscal oversight," she said. "I support the Police Department in their efforts to reduce crime in Baltimore City, and I definitely wouldn't want to tie their hands, but I have some concerns, such as what kind of controls would be in place for these expenditures, who's going to sign off."

Increasing secrecy

Police officials have increased their secrecy on a number of fronts. Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris has enhanced his department's technology, which includes the use of secret devices in the war on drugs.

And last month, they were forced to acknowledge a secret internal affairs office in Essex after a burglary there. Several sensitive files on police misconduct were rifled or missing.

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