Norris interviewed for job while in N.Y. for funeral

Off-the-books account covered cost of Dec. trip

August 21, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris interviewed for the top police job in a Long Island county while he was visiting New York to attend the funeral of his chief of staff's mother -- with all the expenses paid by an off-the-books departmental fund.

Norris was interested in taking the police commissioner's job for the Nassau County Police Department, said Tony Cancellieri, Nassau's deputy county executive, who interviewed Norris for the post in December.

"The thing that struck me was his eagerness to leave some place he had been only a short period of time," Cancellieri said. "He seemed excited about the prospect of coming back to New York."

Norris, who joined the Baltimore force in early 2000 after serving as deputy commissioner in New York City, could not be reached for comment last night.

His chief spokeswoman, Ragina C. Averella, confirmed that Norris interviewed with Cancellieri while visiting New York for the funeral.

"Commissioner Norris was in New York attending the funeral for his chief of staff's mother, and he did meet with Mr. Cancellieri while there for that trip," Averella said.

Averella said Norris was "committed to serving the citizens of Baltimore."

Norris's trip to New York for the funeral and interview was financed by a little-known account that he used to fund more than $178,000 in expenses during the past two years. Mayor Martin O'Malley ordered an independent audit of the account, which was funded largely by stock acquired decades ago, after The Sun reported its existence last week.

City officials met for the first time with the outside auditors from Ernst & Young yesterday to outline the scope and cost of the probe.

Tony White, a spokesman for O'Malley, said the mayor was aware of the commissioner's interview in Nassau County.

"At the time, it was reasonable that Cabinet members would keep open future employment options given the mayor's possible gubernatorial bid," White said. "Mayor O'Malley is grateful that Commissioner Norris remained and recently signed a [new] contract with the city."

During the trip to attend the funeral for the mother of Norris' chief of staff, John Stendrini, the commissioner and his driver stayed at W New York, a boutique hotel, Dec. 17 and 18. Receipts for that trip were submitted for restaurant bills totaling $544.35 at Smith & Wollensky's, a Manhattan steakhouse. The entire trip, which was expensed by the driver, Agent Thomas Tobin, cost the fund $1,790.68.

In an interview last week, Norris said he used the fund to finance his trip for the funeral but did not mention his interview for the Nassau County job.

Cancellieri said yesterday that Nassau County officials asked Norris and about 15 others to interview for the top post with the county's department, which has 2,800 sworn officers and 1,800 civilian employees. Norris called Cancellieri and told him he would be in New York to attend a funeral and could meet him on Long Island to talk about the job, according to the county official.

Nassau County eventually hired James H. Lawrence, who like Norris was a veteran of the New York Police Department.

City Council members said yesterday they were stunned to learn that Norris interviewed for another job while on a trip financed by his own department's money.

"If he's using the fund to interview for another job, that does bother me," Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said.

"We invested a whole bunch of money to keep him here," Mitchell continued. "I hope we're not getting hoodwinked."

Last month, Baltimore officials approved a $100,000 package to encourage Norris to stay in Baltimore until at least 2004 and ignore employment offers from other cities. Norris has said he has received calls from a number of police departments to take their top jobs. Norris, who makes $137,000 a year, also gets a severance of $137,000 if he leaves the department for any reason.

Norris used the fund -- known as the supplemental account -- to finance several trips to New York during the past year. Norris and others also spent more than $2,500 at a Manhattan steakhouse.

Norris has conceded the fund was loosely supervised but has defended all of his expenses as legitimate.

Norris was not the first police commissioner to use the fund for travel and other expenses. The account evolved from three charities for which police officers in the 1920s and 1930s raised private funds to assist officers in need and to buy athletic equipment for police leagues. Over the decades, the funds were converted to stocks and grew substantially. In 1983, police chief Bishop L. Robinson consolidated the three charity funds into the supplemental account.

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