Sheriff faces criticism amid investigation

Strasdauskas blamed for staffing vacancies

Seeking 2nd term in Balto. Co.

Use of public funds for self-promotion decried

August 11, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In addition to an investigation by the Maryland Ethics Commission, Baltimore County Sheriff Anne K. Strasdauskas faces mounting criticism from current and former employees, political opponents and some county officials about her high-profile stewardship of the sheriff's department.

Critics say the department is understaffed and demoralized. They also point to the sheriff's use of public funds for what they see as self-promotion and political advertising, an issue being examined by the county attorney at the request of a County Council member.

The ethics commission is looking into the sheriff's testimony at a county liquor board hearing, where she endorsed an application from a corporation without informing the board that her brother owns the chain's Silver Spring Mining Co. restaurant in Bel Air.

Strasdauskas, who likes to be called "Sheriff Anne," said she has done nothing wrong, and declined to comment on the ethics investigation. A Democrat, she is running for a second four-year term.

After interviews with dozens of current and former sheriff's department employees, courthouse and government workers, questions about the sheriff's department and Strasdauskas' conduct remain.

In May, County Auditor Brian J. Rowe told County Council members Strasdauskas spent nearly $1,200 in public funds for newspaper ads in fiscal year 2002 that "appear to border on campaign advertising for the Sheriff."

After that, she agreed not to use taxpayers' money for the ads, which she said were meant to inform the public about the duties of the sheriff's department -- providing courthouse security, serving legal papers and transporting prisoners. Most of her ads featured her picture and lacked information on the sheriff's department's main responsibilities.

An ad published July 4 in the Times-Herald, a community newspaper, contains a large picture of the sheriff offering best wishes to law enforcement personnel and members of the U.S. armed forces -- and does not contain an authorization line indicating the source of funding for the ad. The sheriff said she personally paid for the ad.

"The sheriff's ad was definitely campaign material," said Katie A. Brown, a county election official, whose office has received numerous complaints about the advertisement.

Under state election laws, the authorization line must indicate who is responsible for production and distribution of campaign material. Such material includes signs, letters, advertisements, Web sites and bumper stickers.

Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder has asked the county attorney to examine the advertising. Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, is concerned about the promotional-style ads being financed with taxpayers' money.

"At her budget hearing, the sheriff said she would stop using general funds for these ads and pay for them herself," said Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat. "So if she is now paying for these ads that really have nothing to do with her department's official functions, are they campaign ads? And if so, where is the authorization line required in political advertising?"

Added Gardina: "Public officials cannot use public money to promote themselves. The sheriff may have stopped that, but the new ads I've seen just promote her, and I have some significant concerns about it."

Staffing

The sworn-deputy ranks are depleted by at least 14 positions, including the deputy chief and a sergeant's position -- nearly a quarter of the ranks of officers who have graduated from the police academy and are trained in the use of firearms. County records show that five of those vacancies have existed for more than eight months under Strasdauskas' command.

Current and former deputies complain about a lack of adequate backup when serving eviction notices or removing a parent from a household by court order.

Deputies also say they are offended when ordered or "volunteered" to work details at events such as Special Olympics Cops and Lobsters, Department of Aging Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets and Child Identification Days.

In interviews, current members of the department spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared losing their jobs.

The county auditor cautioned the sheriff in the most recent budget analysis for the County Council that while having deputies participate in non-mandated "special community projects ... they were not specifically authorized in the [sheriff] office's adopted budget nor were funds specifically provided to support these activities."

Furthermore, the auditor's report said, "several of these activities appear to be more appropriately budgeted in other County agencies."

Strasdauskas, who will answer only written inquiries from The Sun, said that when she assumed command, there were six vacancies compared with the current 14. Discounting criticism, she said backup resources "are sufficient."

Second in command

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