Norris, police spend off-the-books funds on trips, gifts, meals

In 2 years, commissioner used $178,000 from little-known account

Mayor transfers control of money

August 14, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Edward T. Norris, Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris has used a loosely monitored, off-the-books departmental fund to finance more than $178,000 in expenses during the past two years, including trips to New York, gifts to fellow officers and others, and expensive meals at trendy restaurants.

Yesterday, Mayor Martin O'Malley criticized Norris' handling of the account and said he was unaware it existed until recently. The fund paid for, among other things:

$433 for sweatshirts and jackets purchased to keep police commanders warm when the weather turned chilly at an Orioles game in April.

$550 for 55 pairs of gold-plated cuff links inscribed with the word "Commissioner" that Norris gave away as souvenirs.

About $20,000 in trips, including at least eight in the past year to New York, where Norris and others spent about $2,500 on meals at a Manhattan steakhouse.

Unlike the department's other funds, the supplemental account was unsupervised and unaudited by other city officials or the Board of Estimates. Rather, Norris and past commissioners have had the authority to spend its money as they wished. Their rationale was that the fund grew from donations and charitable activities and was not tax money.

The fund began during the Great Depression, when the department operated several accounts to help the needy and to lend employees money in hard times. But over the decades, the fund's uses have changed - from being a rainy-day account for those in need to an expense budget for trips and meals. And a series of police commissioners has managed to keep the fund relatively secret.

O'Malley said yesterday that he ordered the fund's money turned over to the control of City Finance Director Peggy Watson.

"I'm a bit angry that there wasn't better and tighter accounting," O'Malley said. "Because if there were, there wouldn't be any room for any questions."

O'Malley said he stood behind Norris, calling him "a terrific police officer and police commissioner."

Norris froze the fund, known as the Baltimore Police Department supplemental account, and launched an internal audit of its books after The Sun recently inquired about expenses paid to the commissioner, Norris' security detail and aides.

Norris, who was sworn in for a six-year term yesterday, conceded that the fund was poorly supervised and called the accounting "sloppy."

"It was a terrible system," Norris said. "Believe me, this was an accountant's nightmare."

While admitting to accounting problems, Norris defended his purchases and trips yesterday, saying they were all legitimate expenses. He said that during his stays in New York, he was conducting departmental business, attending seminars, meeting high-ranking New York police officials and trying to recruit new members for the Baltimore Police Department.

Norris also said that the meals and trips were instrumental in enabling him to raise more than $3 million for the Baltimore Police Foundation, a nonprofit established by Norris to help buy equipment and other items for the force.

City Comptroller Joan Pratt learned about the account after being contacted yesterday by a reporter. "I believe that there should be some checks and balances and oversight, and I don't think one individual should have sole discretion to have unlimited spending without accountability," Pratt said.

Like comptroller Pratt, city finance director Watson said she never knew the fund existed until recent weeks.

The fund was controlled by Norris, who authorized other officials in the department's fiscal office to write the checks.

Sometimes the disbursements worked like this:

Checks would be written to Thomas Tobin, a 23-year veteran officer who is Norris' driver. Tobin was apparently designated to pay for the commissioner's expenses as they arose. Later, Tobin would submit receipts for his expenses, but not always. In all, more than $48,000 in checks was given to Tobin. Last month, Tobin was asked to return more than $12,000 that he never spent on expenses, after The Sun requested to review the agency's files.

Tobin last night said that he had done "absolutely nothing wrong" and the $12,000 had been stored "in a safe at work" before he was asked to return it to officials overseeing the account.

Tobin declined to talk further.

Norris has not been the only police commissioner to use the account to pay for trips, dining and gifts. In the 1990s, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier spent about $300,000 in five years, police officials said.

Among Frazier's trips was one to Hawaii to attend a conference. Frazier's trip was paid for with money from one of the department's regular funds and approved by the Board of Estimates. But Frazier, who could not be reached for comment, wanted to bring his driver. So he financed his driver's trip with money from the off-the-books supplemental account, police officials said.

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