Federal jury widens probe of crime office

Subpoenas seek records on personnel, spending at Townsend-led agency

Investigation started in April

U of Md. was also asked to provide documents on staff, grant money

August 13, 2002|By Gail Gibson and Greg Garland | Gail Gibson and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A federal grand jury investigating a Maryland crime-control office overseen by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has asked to review personnel records for about half the agency's professional staff as well as documents showing how more than $6 million in federal funds was spent, according to subpoenas released yesterday by state officials.

The subpoenas give the clearest indication yet of the widening scope of the federal probe and its apparent focus on whether state employees were engaged in improper political activity.

The records show that the investigation started with scrutiny of awards to a Prince George's County nonprofit group and expanded to include how and why employees of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention were hired and what work they produced.

Officials at the crime-control office and the University of Maryland, College Park were directed to deliver thousands of pages of documents about staff and federal grant money to a grand jury sitting in U.S. District Court in Baltimore beginning Aug. 21.

The crime-control office's top administrator said yesterday that he had no knowledge of any employees engaging in political activity during work hours.

"We have continually repeated [in full staff meetings] that we will not tolerate anyone getting involved with political activity, regardless of party, on state time, with state resources," said Stephen P. Amos, who took over as executive director of the crime-control office in July 2000 after working for the U.S. Justice Department.

"While we don't discourage anybody from being actively engaged politically, this [the crime control office] is not the place for it," Amos said.

The probe comes to light as Townsend, a Democrat, is entering the final months of a gubernatorial race in which she is expected to face Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who recommended Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio to his post last year.

Townsend has turned the charge of politics back at federal authorities. She has called the probe "political garbage," and questioned why DiBiagio - a Bush administration appointee - turned his scope on what she has described as a "tiny little office."

Ehrlich has rejected suggestions that the probe is politically motivated. DiBiagio and Ehrlich are friends, but both men have said that they have not spoken to each other since DiBiagio was sworn into office last year and then quickly split from his political benefactor on the high-profile issue of federal prosecution of gun crimes.

The four subpoenas released yesterday in response to a public records request by The Sun show that First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Welsh, DiBiagio's second-in-command, is coordinating the investigation. Welsh declined to comment yesterday, as have other officials in the office and in the FBI's Baltimore field office.

The probe apparently dates to at least April, when federal officials issued a subpoena to a nonprofit group in Prince George's County for records of a $503,000 grant it received from the state office last year. That subpoena has not been made public, but an April 22 subpoena issued to the crime-control office also specifically requested detailed documents about grants awarded to the program, known as Safe Streets 2000 Inc.

More recent subpoenas, however, indicate that federal authorities are taking a broad look at the crime-control office, which in recent years has been marked by a steadily expanding budget and staff - many of whom receive their paychecks through grants administered by the University System of Maryland.

George Cathcart, communications director for the University of Maryland, College Park, said yesterday that university officials do not believe that they are a target of the probe.

"After reviewing these [subpoenaed] files, we feel everything is aboveboard and with the regulations of the university and state," Cathcart said. "We will continue to cooperate with the investigation."

The university has received two subpoenas. The first, issued Aug. 5, requested personnel records for 31 individuals, most of whom are former or current workers of the crime-control office.

Those same workers, and six others, also were named in a subpoena sent Aug. 5 that directed the crime-control office to submit its personnel records, including evaluations, attendance and leave records as well as "records pertaining to vehicle allowance or assignment of any other non-monetary consideration."

Several of the individuals named in the subpoenas said yesterday that they were surprised by the records request and said federal authorities would find no indication of improper political influence in the office.

John F. Tewey, a retired Baltimore police lieutenant who became coordinator of the Maryland HotSpots Community Initiative early this year, said that although the program is considered to be a hallmark of Townsend's tenure as lieutenant governor, it is insulated from politics.

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