Anger over police `slush fund' a case of misspent outrage

August 18, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

JUDGING FROM the reaction, you'd think Baltimore police Commissioner Ed Norris had taken his wife on a three-week vacation in Paris, spent bundles on an elaborate shopping spree and paid for it all with the money from that "slush fund" that has residents of Payback City in such high dudgeon.

But that's not what he did. Using a fund of donated money other commissioners had used, Norris spent $178,000 for gifts - sweat shirts and jackets for police commanders attending an Orioles game on a chilly night - trips to other cities, lodging and meals. In short, Norris used the money the way previous commissioners had.

But you'd get the impression, wouldn't you, that Norris was binge spending with taxpayers' money? The pugnacious chief, who responded with a terse, "Yeah, I've actually reduced crime in the city" when asked if he had done anything prior commissioners hadn't, said that in some cases he saved taxpayer dollars by using money from the fund (called the supplemental account) to send commanders to other cities for seminars and training.

"The city sends some people with taxpayer money," Norris said last week after Sun reporter Del Quentin Wilber's story hit the newsstands. "I have augmented some of that money. There is a precedent for this. I think the [funding for] travel and training started under [former police Commissioner Edward] Tilghman."

Norris said his trips to New York, New Orleans and other places were to recruit police officers for Baltimore's department and to learn how to make his department better. He went to New Orleans to try to get the No. 2 man there to take that job here. On another trip, he went to learn about the New Orleans Police Foundation. He went to New York to learn about that city's police foundation as well.

"We learned how to raise money for the Baltimore Police Foundation," Norris said, adding that the department has brought in $3.1 million for it so far. With the money, Norris says, police have bought a Mobile Command Unit - a veritable "headquarters on wheels" - 18 police dogs and equipment for the police dog unit and used the foundation to obtain a $350,000 grant to help ease the backlog of DNA cases. The Mobile Command Unit alone, Norris said, cost $900,000. Baltimore taxpayers didn't have to pay a dime.

"There's no taxpayer money to be had for equipment," Norris said. "I only have $206,000 in my discretionary budget for equipment."

But Norris' critics - who don't want to kick the man while he's down as much as stomp him - will hear nothing about police foundations that save taxpayer dollars. They want to know about the hotel bills and the meals at the fancy restaurants that ran into thousands of dollars. How does Norris answer that?

He doesn't have to. We all know what Norris was doing on those trips to recruit command staff. The guy was schmoozing. Everybody does it. It gets bad when public officials do it with public dollars, but that wasn't done here.

Just where were Norris and other commanders supposed to stay when they went to, say, New York? A Motel 6? If you're schmoozing a guy, trying to get him to leave New York or New Orleans to take a job in Payback City, would you take him to a fancy restaurant like Smith & Wollensky in Manhattan, or treat the guy to a cheese steak and a Coke at Bob's Greasy Spoon Sub Shop in the South Bronx?

Here's a nifty idea, one that will be sure to improve Baltimore's image as an armpit of a town in between Philadelphia and Washington: Next time Norris wants to go to New York, let's have him hitch a ride up I-95. When he gets there, he'll stay in a homeless shelter. If he needs a meal to schmooze a potential recruit, we can have him take a mess of box lunches - composed of a peanut butter and jelly "samich," a stalk of celery and a bottle of Baltimore's finest tap water - with him.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said in Wilber's story that he was a bit miffed that there wasn't "better and tighter accounting" for the supplemental account, which is now controlled by city Finance Director Peggy Watson. Here's something else that should have his nose out of joint: With the supplemental account around for years, why is it suddenly an issue under his administration and under the police commissioner he selected?

And, if Norris has indeed saved Baltimore taxpayers more than $1 million, what's the sweat about spending $178,000 from a supplemental account not funded with our tax dollars?

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.