City won't check Norris

O'Malley says he trusts commissioner's spending of $178,000 off the books

Expert urges independent review

Comptroller won't audit account because it did not contain taxpayer money

August 15, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber and Tom Pelton | Del Quentin Wilber and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's mayor and comptroller said yesterday that they will not investigate Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris' use of an off-the-books account to finance more than $178,000 in expenses during the past two years, although a national expert said an independent review should be conducted.

City officials' reaction comes after revelations about a decades-old account that Norris used to finance trips to New York, expensive meals, and gifts to fellow officers and others.

Mayor Martin O'Malley criticized Norris' oversight of the account but said yesterday that he trusted the commissioner's assurances that the money was spent on legitimate business expenses.

"I think it's clear that at least since 1983 this has been an expense account, and Norris was told that this is what it's for when he took office," O'Malley said. "The breakdown came when they failed to reconcile the account on a monthly basis. But this will be taken care of now that we've given the Board of Finance oversight over the account."

City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt also said she would not audit the account because it did not contain taxpayer money. The fund evolved from three separate police charities that were established during the 1920s and 1930s and merged in 1983. It was initially financed by donations and charitable activities.

Over the years, the account has grown substantially - it now contains about $12,000 in cash and 6,190 shares of Capital One Financial stock, worth almost $192,200 at yesterday's stock market closing - and its uses have changed from being a rainy-day account for those in need to mostly an expense budget for trips and meals.

While O'Malley has said he believes that the fund was not misused, Mike Taylor, president of the National Association of Local Government Auditors, said that the police department's audit should not be relied on because it was not an independent examination. The departmental review, sparked by The Sun's request to inspect records, was conducted by Edward Ambrose, director of the police department's fiscal office, who reports to Norris.

"For an audit to be valid, it ought to be handled by an independent party," said Taylor, auditor of Stockton, Calif. "I would say that it's the function of the independently-elected city auditor to look into this question, or the city should hire someone from outside to conduct an audit."

"The city should be concerned about this and should conduct an audit," Taylor added. "The sequence of events certainly raises an eyebrow or two."

Sheldon Greenberg, director of the Johns Hopkins University Division of Public Safety Leadership, said that even though he has known Norris to be a "straight shooter," the fund's disbursements should be investigated.

"Issues such as an aide to the chief sitting on a fund of $12,000 in cash for no specific purpose raises lots of questions," Greenberg said. Greenberg was referring to Norris' driver who returned $12,000 in unspent expense money to the fund July 31, long after some of it had been disbursed.

"The public is entitled to answers to the questions that have been raised," Greenberg said. "But the questions have to be couched in the right way so this doesn't instantly become politically charged."

Greenberg also echoed comments by city officials, who said they did not know the fund existed until contacted by a reporter.

"I've been involved in over 50 major studies of law enforcement agencies that have included a pretty detailed review of budgets, and I'm not familiar with anything quite like this," he said.

Norris did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday, but explained in a lengthy interview Tuesday that he used the account to recruit officers, give out motivational gifts and to pay for business trips. The fund was also occasionally used for charitable purposes, such as a $500 donation for a community block party. After The Sun requested information concerning the account, the department launched an internal audit and Norris froze the fund. O'Malley has since ordered his finance director, Peggy Watson, to oversee the account.

The department turned over to The Sun hundreds of departmental records, including receipts, bank statements and authorization letters. The newspaper found that Norris had authorized more than $178,000 in payments during two years. More than $20,000 was for travel expenses during his 27-month tenure. He made at least eight trips in the past year to New York - his hometown - spending about $2,500 at Smith & Wollensky, a Manhattan steakhouse.

The fund was also used to pay for $433 in jackets and sweat shirts for police commanders enjoying a baseball game in a luxury box at an April 3 Orioles' game, Norris said. The commanders had become cold; the low temperature that day was 51 degrees.

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