Norris' slush fund

August 15, 2002

LET'S BE CLEAR about Edward T. Norris: Baltimoreans largely have him to thank for the city's dramatic reduction in homicides two years ago and for the overall drop in violent crime that continues today. He's the one who put more cops on the streets, beefed up enforcement against so-called "quality-of-life" crimes and brought accountability to a department that previously indulged dereliction.

That just makes it doubly disappointing, though, to learn that the police commissioner used an unsupervised slush fund to spend $178,000 on questionable out-of-town trips, gifts and meals.

Did the chief forget about his pledge to end a culture of corruption in the city's Police Department -- or believe that the new standards didn't apply to his own office?

When he learned about the stash, Mr. Norris ought to have regarded it as manna from heaven and dedicated it to upgrading (or even maintaining) the department's operational readiness.

The city has been begging, for example, for money to hire more chemists to analyze evidence in drug cases -- many of which get dismissed because evidence sits on the shelf unexamined for too long. Mr. Norris' excursions could have paid salaries for two chemists. The city also constantly needs more officers; with $178,000, nearly six recruits could have been added to the force.

Instead, Mr. Norris spent that kind of cash on rooms in a fancy New York hotel and meals in steakhouses. Tens of thousands of dollars were disbursed through his driver, a sworn police officer.

When asked to explain the exact nature of these expenditures, Mr. Norris repeatedly said he could not remember.

But neither Mayor Martin O'Malley nor city Comptroller Joan Pratt can accept that response. The city deserves a full accounting of Mr. Norris' expenditures, including the names of people he entertained or gave gifts to.

The mayor and Ms. Pratt say there's no need for an independent audit; they're satisfied with a cursory internal review. But that's nonsense.

Mr. O'Malley might need to hark back to his days as a city councilman, when he used to lock horns with former Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier over police matters.

Had the mayor known that the former chief spent $300,000 from this dubious fund, would he have backed off an audit? Or would the bombastic Councilman O'Malley have demanded some accountability?

Mr. O'Malley must hold Mr. Norris to the highest standards, too.

Moreover, the commissioner, who has maintained that his only mistake was not keeping good records with regard to the slush fund, needs to own up to the fact that he exhibited poor judgment by spending the money the way he did.

Mr. Norris is a good police chief with a strong initial track record. But if he doesn't set things straight on this matter, he'll wind up fostering the culture of corruption he said he'd change.

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