O'Malley bound to Norris, for good or ill

Criticism of police chief over spending casts a shadow on mayor

Analysis

August 19, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley gripped the hand of police Commissioner Edward T. Norris beneath the chandeliers in City Hall last week, swearing him in to another term and praising him as the best chief in the country.

The next day, their embrace became awkward. The mayor was besieged by questions from reporters about whether his commissioner had spent lavishly from an off-the-books expense account. O'Malley said the question didn't merit investigation.

Then, dogged by growing criticism that threatened to undermine O'Malley's reputation for integrity, the mayor reversed course and ordered an independent audit of Norris' spending.

It was a painful week for Baltimore's mayor. And it threw into stark relief how important the commissioner is to O'Malley's political future.

"It's almost like a marriage, the mayor is so connected to Norris," said City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.

The relationship began more than 2 1/2 years ago, when O'Malley was elected on a single issue: to reduce the city's crime rate before Baltimore became the murder capital of America.

Infuriated by the failures of liberal, community-based policing in the city, O'Malley promised to replicate the zero-tolerance tactics that Norris and others had developed to make New York City safer.

O'Malley brought in Norris, and Norris brought O'Malley a clear and significant victory: a 20 percent drop in violent crime over two years that boosted confidence in many neighborhoods.

But some observers now worry that recent revelations about Norris' taste for New York-style luxuries - including $2,500 spent at a trendy Manhattan steakhouse - could spark a political backlash among Baltimore's poor neighborhoods. The meals were part of about $178,000 that Norris spent from an off-the-books police expense account that the commissioner controlled with no oversight. Norris has defended his use of the "supplemental account," saying he only used it for legitimate business expenses.

O'Malley may have inoculated himself and Norris from the scandal Thursday when he asked an independent accounting firm, Ernst & Young, to investigate the spending of Norris and past commissioners from the Police Department's "supplemental account."

But critics wonder whether O'Malley's tentative and mild response to the questions showed a favoritism that could return to haunt the mayor in future political races.

Double standard

State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the first African-American elected official to back O'Malley's run for mayor in 1999, said she believes O'Malley uses a double standard when dealing with people close to him.

Conway recalled that back when O'Malley was a city councilman, he was quick to demand investigations and audits of former police chief Thomas C. Frazier, whom O'Malley accused of manipulating crime statistics.

"He used to kick and scream about Frazier," Conway said. "And yet now O'Malley seems to be almost dismissing the issue with Norris. People in my diverse district are incensed about all of these extravagant expenses at a time the city is struggling to balance its budget."

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, predicted that the questions about Norris' spending would blow over.

"Those who are not favorably disposed to Norris because he's from New York and because he's white will just add this to the list of gripes about him," Rawlings said. "But I don't think it will do him any harm in the long run because it doesn't have anything to do with making our neighborhoods safer."

Some observers put O'Malley's handling of Norris in the context of how he has managed troubles with other cabinet members.

This is the third embarrassing episode to erupt within O'Malley's inner circle. In December 2000, newly appointed Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano was jailed briefly and underwent alcohol treatment after he made drunken, anti-homosexual remarks in a bar and refused a police order to leave.

In May, City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. - O'Malley's former roommate - was roundly criticized when he verbally exploded at police officers during the arrest of his nephew on drug charges.

Demanding, forgiving

Although O'Malley is known as a demanding and impatient boss, in each of these cases he has forgiven the personal failings of his cabinet members. In Graziano's case, the personal weakness was alcohol. In Zollicoffer's, it was his temper. In Norris' case, some say it was carelessness or a taste for luxury.

What O'Malley does not forgive is what he perceives as a lack of professional competence, according to those who know him.

O'Malley fired parks Director Marvin F. Billups Jr. last month because the mayor felt Billups wasn't working quickly enough to clean the parks. The mayor also abruptly parted company with his former housing commissioner, Patricia J. Payne, because he didn't think she was getting the job done, according to those close to the mayor.

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