Townsend asks attorney general about grant use

Ruling sought on whether agency is properly using funds awarded to UM

`Clear guidance' wanted

Probe checking whether money was used for work for which it was intended

August 17, 2002|By Michael Dresser and Greg Garland | Michael Dresser and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Reacting to a federal investigation that is haunting her campaign, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend asked the state attorney general yesterday to rule whether an agency she oversees is properly using grants awarded to the University of Maryland to carry out anti-crime projects.

In a one-page letter delivered yesterday afternoon, Townsend urged Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. to provide "clear guidance" on whether the Office of Crime Control and Prevention's practice of conducting business through university grant programs is legal.

Deputy Attorney General Carmen M. Shepard said the state's chief counsel would provide the advice, but added that it is too soon to say what that might be.

A spokesman for Townsend's Republican rival in the race for governor, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., dismissed the letter as "political" and said it came after "tens of millions of dollars" had been misspent.

"It's breathtaking that after dishing out millions and millions in grants, she would then turn around and ask what the rules are," said Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's political director. "You're supposed to find out what the rules are first."

The crime-control office is the target of a federal investigation by U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio at a time when the Democratic lieutenant governor is in a close race with Ehrlich, who recommended DiBiagio for his post last year. The probe is focusing on the agency's relationship with the University of Maryland, College Park.

Townsend, who previously described the investigation as "political garbage," made no reference to the investigation in her letter. Instead, she referred to media coverage that she said has shown "the potential for confusion in the absence of a clear legal framework" for this type of grant administration.

Press coverage of the investigation has focused on the close relationship of the crime-control office and UM in the wake of recent subpoenas served on the university and the agency.

The subpoenas sought records of grants in which the university was asked to hire about 30 workers who were supervised by the crime-control office. In some cases, the agency added money to the university's grants to hire particular individuals.

In her letter, Townsend said that, to her knowledge, it has not been determined that these relationships would constitute an inappropriate use of federal grant money.

"Your guidance," she wrote, "would help to clarify these issues."

The Ehrlich camp, which previously had been silent on the investigation, called the letter "political."

"I can only assume she did this so in the throes of the campaign next month, she can wave an attorney general's opinion around saying, `See, I asked for the rules.'" Schurick said. "Well, it's too late - there are tens of millions of dollars that are already out the barn door."

Michael Sarbanes, Townsend's deputy chief of staff for public policy, said the lieutenant governor would have asked for the ruling regardless of whether it was an election year.

"The office has taken a proactive and strategic approach to reducing crime in communities and has established partnerships that have allowed it to do that," he said. "If there is a problem with the partnerships, obviously the lieutenant governor would want to know about it and want to fix it."

Sarbanes expressed no doubt that the legality of the arrangements would be upheld and criticized coverage of the investigation.

"The press accounts focus on the fact there is an investigation rather than the substantial question of whether there is any basis in law for the investigation," he said.

So far, nothing prosecutors have done indicates that they are questioning the legality of awarding grants to the university. Rather, the investigation appears to be checking whether the funds were used for the work for which they were intended, and whether state employees were used to support Townsend's political activities - a charge the office has denied.

Once a small, little-known agency, the crime-control office has grown as federal anti-crime funding has increased. During the past 10 years, the office has nearly quadrupled the amount of federal grant money it collects and distributes - from $10.5 million in 1992 to $39 million this year.

The staff of 45 authorized by the state budget is supplemented by an additional 32 employees who receive their paychecks through federal grants awarded to the University of Maryland, College Park and report to the crime-control office.

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