A political probe?

August 15, 2002

THE "political garbage" is piling up.

That must be what Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is thinking, now that federal investigators have expanded their probe of a crime control and prevention bureau her office oversees.

Ms. Townsend, the Democratic candidate for governor, has dismissed the entire investigation as election year refuse. She all but accused U.S. Attorney Thomas B. DiBiagio, a Republican, of launching the probe to aid the gubernatorial campaign of GOP Rep. Robert H. Ehrlich Jr.

The timing of the investigation does open Mr. DiBiagio to such criticism, but let's also remember that he has a job to do. From the day Mr. DiBiagio took office (Mr. Ehrlich, by the way, recommended him for the post), he has emphasized his interest in political corruption and white-collar crime cases - and that's what this is.

Moreover, the timing of the investigation will be irrelevant if Mr. DiBiagio's office uncovers evidence of criminal wrongdoing. His reputation suggests he wouldn't initiate such a politically charged investigation without good cause.

But it's tough to know right now if he is pursuing credible allegations of political corruption or has embarked on a fishing expedition. Mr. DiBiagio, as expected, won't comment on the investigation or what sparked it.

The initial goings have FBI agents looking into a $503,000 grant to a project for juvenile offenders that had ties to two Prince George's county lawmakers. To its credit, the state crime office pulled the funding after the project ran into trouble. But then it used $41,950 in federal funds to compensate three project workers who claimed they had never been paid.

The latest inquiry is off in another direction entirely. Federal agents are looking at grant awards to a program at the University of Maryland that paid the salaries of employees under the control of the state crime office. Officials of the office say the payment arrangement is consistent with federal guidelines.

The real question is whether or not these employees are doing political work on the public's dime - and nothing else. Or if federal money is being misappropriated.

The work of the state crime control office has grown with its staff's ability to increase its pool of federal dollars, from $10.5 million in 1992 to $39 million this year. The money funds everything from training police in Hagerstown to combating underage drinking in Baltimore.

Those dollars have the potential to reach a lot of communities and earn the lieutenant governor a lot of friends. But the success - and failure - of those programs also will reflect on the lieutenant governor's crime-fighting strategy and efforts.

With the general election only three months away, Mr. DiBiagio owes it to Maryland voters to conduct this investigation in a responsible and timely manner. The outcome could well affect not only Ms. Townsend's reputation and political future, but also the U.S. attorney's credibility.

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