Federal grants to UM used to staff anti-crime office

Ex-worker says duties included compiling data for Townsend's campaign

August 14, 2002|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

University of Maryland officials said yesterday that they were directed by a state anti-crime office to use federal grants to hire about 30 workers for whom the university had no supervisory authority - an arrangement one called unusual.

The employees, who reported to the anti-crime office, were named in a subpoena last week in connection with a federal grand jury probe of whether federal funds were misused by the anti-crime agency overseen by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Cynthia Roberts Hale, an assistant dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, called the hiring arrangement with the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention (GOCCP) unusual and said university officials would review whether it should continue.

The anti-crime office also steered federal money to the university that was used to lease cars for about a dozen GOCCP workers and to rent space for a regional office for the agency, according to records the university released yesterday.

"We wanted to be cooperative with the governor's office," Hale said in describing the hires and the close relationship between the university and GOCCP.

Townsend, who has called the probe "political garbage," praised the work of the GOCCP office while she was on the campaign trail yesterday, saying crime has been reduced by "historic levels."

"We're learning a lot about their exploration," she said of the federal investigation. "But what we're not learning about is that the office has been doing a great job."

One apparent aspect of the investigation is whether state employees were used to support political activities of Townsend, who is expected to face a close race against Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for governor.

A former GOCCP worker said yesterday that money from a federal crime-fighting grant was used to pay her to compile information that would benefit Townsend's gubernatorial campaign, at the direction of the lieutenant governor's top aide.

Margaret T. Burns, who left the state agency late last year to become a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said she was assigned by Townsend aide Alan Fleischmann to compile a database that would show which agencies and nonprofits received grant money after a pledge of help from the lieutenant governor.

Burns, who had previously worked as a communications manager for the crime-control office, said she was reassigned to the university's Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) staff, and agency records show she was paid out of a $68,000 federal grant.

Burns' claim that she was assigned political work was sharply disputed yesterday by Fleischmann and by Stephen P. Amos, director of the anti-crime office and Burns' supervisor.

Fleischmann said he met with Burns when she was reassigned, but never directed her to do any political work. He suggested Burns was disgruntled about the reassignment.

Amos said he directed Burns to compile the database of grant information, but he said it was designed to ensure that the projects were receiving proper oversight and not as a political scoreboard for Townsend.

"My staff know that I'm really intolerant of political activity while on duty," Amos said yesterday. "They know that anyone involved in political activity on the job, I will flat-out fire."

Hale, the assistant dean, said Amos' office gave the university grants to hire about 30 people who report directly to Amos' office, not to the university.

She said the practice started in the late 1990s with a few people, but the numbers "increased substantially in the past couple of years."

Hale said university officials saw nothing "inappropriate" in the hiring requests, noting that the anti-crime office is responsible to federal officials to account for how grant funds are used.

However, the university is examining the issue further, Hale said. "Given this level of scrutiny, I think it's only prudent that the university review these practices," she said.

At the College Park campus, the head of the substance-abuse program said the hiring arrangement grew out of a long-standing, collegial relationship between the university program and the GOCCP.

But Eric Wish, executive director of the 12-year-old CESAR program, said he had little contact with many of the GOCCP employees assigned to his staff and had little knowledge about their work assignments.

Wish said he was interviewed last week by an FBI agent about a wide range of topics. He declined to discuss the details of that interview but said he had not been subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury.

Wish said he worried that the probe could taint the center's nationally recognized work on issues such as early detection of rising use of the drug Ecstasy.

"We're just trying to do our job and to do good research and good science," Wish said. "We've built a tremendous asset to the state of Maryland, and I hate to see it made vulnerable by this type of investigation."

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