Probe of office overseen by Townsend may be expanding

Victims-rights advocate questioned by FBI

August 10, 2002|By Michael Dresser and Greg Garland | Michael Dresser and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The federal investigation into grants distributed by a state anti-crime office may be expanding beyond the scrutiny of awards to a Prince George's County nonprofit group and the University of Maryland, College Park.

Roberta Roper, a well-known advocate for the rights of crime victims, was questioned Thursday by an FBI agent who asked her whether she knew anything about mismanagement in the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which is overseen by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Creator of the Stephanie Roper Foundation, Roper said FBI agent Robert Sheehy's questions were general and did not focus on any specific allegations.

Her foundation received a $15,650 grant from the crime office in 2000.

Roper, who also is chairwoman of the advisory State Board of Victim Services, said she told the agent of her concerns about inaccuracies in reports the office provided to the board about collections of traffic fines and other court-generated money that was supposed to go to the Maryland Victims of Crime Fund.

She said the errors, which GOCCP officials attributed to computer coding problems, have since been fixed.

"I couldn't make any allegation that there was a criminal intent," Roper said.

Sheehy would neither confirm nor deny interviewing Roper, and the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment.

Townsend has described the investigation headed by U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio as "political garbage." The probe occurs as the lieutenant governor is entering the final months of a gubernatorial election campaign in which she is expected to face Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who recommended DiBiagio for his post.

Records sought in April

Federal officials issued a subpoena in April to a nonprofit group from Prince George's County for records of a $503,000 grant it received from the state office in March last year. Half of that went to a program that targeted youths who had committed crimes.

A second subpoena was issued in May to GOCCP, requesting records related to the grant.

Another federal grand jury subpoena issued Tuesday sought records of grants the GOCCP made to the Center for Substance Abuse Research, a program run from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Roper is one of the state's best-known advocates for victims of criminals and their survivors. Roper's daughter Stephanie was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1982, prompting her mother to create a foundation that lobbies for pro-victim legislation and provides support services.

Robert Weinhold, GOCCP's spokesman, said he was unaware of any FBI inquiries about victims' services. However, he said, he is not permitted to answer questions about whether records of such programs are covered by the subpoena his office received in May.

Michael Sarbanes, Townsend's deputy chief of staff for policy, said it appears investigators are asking questions about "a very broad, perhaps random range of issues."

"I hope they learn that the Victim Services board has made enormous strides to support vic- tims in the state of Maryland," Sarbanes added.

Abraham A. Dash, a professor and former prosecutor who teachers criminal procedure at the University of Maryland School of Law, said he doesn't see anything wrong the FBI's approach.

"There isn't anything necessarily wrong in their asking general questions," he said. "It's sort of fishing, but that's what a grand jury does. ... Sometimes you catch a shark."

Dash said it would be a serious problem if prosecutors used those powers for political purposes.

"That would be a crime in itself," he said, adding that chances are remote that the professionals in the U.S. attorney's office would go along with such an effort.

UM's second subpoena

In another development yesterday, the University of Maryland, College Park disclosed that it received a second subpoena from federal investigators Thursday seeking "personnel records" relating to grants the crime control office has made to programs at the school.

The Sun and the Washington Post filed requests Thursday under the Maryland Public Records Act seeking copies of the first subpoena.

In a letter the same day, the university's chief lawyer, Jack T. Roach, told First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Welsh that the school intends to act on the requests by the close of business Monday - unless the U.S. attorney's office gives notice it intends to go to court to try to block disclosure of the records.

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