Commissioner defends use of police fund for N.Y. trip

Account paid for travel to funeral, job interview

August 22, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Saying it seemed "like a reasonable use of the money," Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris yesterday defended using a little-known departmental fund to finance a trip to attend a funeral in Manhattan and a job interview in Long Island.

Norris said he interviewed for the top police post in Nassau County in December because Mayor Martin O'Malley was considering a run for governor. O'Malley later decided not to run.

"I was just keeping my options open," Norris said.

Norris' trip to New York for the funeral and interview was financed by a loosely monitored account that he used to pay more than $178,000 in expenses during the past two years. O'Malley has ordered an independent audit of the account, expected to begin in coming weeks, by Ernst & Young.

FOR THE RECORD - In yesterday's editions, The Sun incorrectly reported the location of the funeral of the mother of the chief of staff for Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris. The funeral was on Long Island. The Sun regrets the error.

Norris said Nassau County officials offered to fly him there for the interview, but he declined. He told them he would be in the area to attend the funeral for the mother of his chief of staff, John Stendrini.

Norris said he met with a Nassau County official for about an hour on his way to Manhattan from Long Island, where Stendrini's mother lived. Norris said he "wasn't that interested in the job" and informed the mayor about the interview.

Norris and his driver stayed two nights at W New York, a boutique hotel, and ate at Smith & Wollensky, a Manhattan steakhouse. The trip, which was expensed by his driver, Agent Thomas Tobin, cost $1,790.68.

Norris said spending the account's money on a trip for a funeral was a legitimate business expense because Stendrini "is one of the closest employees to me in the Police Department," and he wanted to help him though a rough time.

But ethics experts questioned spending departmental money to attend the funeral of an employee's relative.

"It appears he used public money for something that was private, personal," said Alexander Kealey, professor emeritus of ethics and philosophy at Towson University.

Kealey also questioned the job interview.

"As far as looking for another job, that should be on his nickel, too," Kealey said.

Tony Cancellieri, Nassau County's deputy county executive, said Tuesday that Norris appeared interested in the job and eager to move closer to his hometown of New York City.

Norris said yesterday that news reports about the fund had grown out of proportion.

"It's getting to be a bit much," Norris said. "It seems really petty. ... This was not taxpayer money. The purpose was legitimate."

Norris added that he used thousands of dollars from the fund for charitable purposes, including buying miniature cars for children and brass plaques in honor of fallen officers, and giving donations to community organizations. Norris authorized giving The Baltimore Afro-American Clean Block campaign $1,000 in 2000 and $1,000 in last year.

Excluding thousands of dollars spent on T-shirts, golf shirts, sweat shirts, jackets, pens, mugs and cuff links, Norris authorized disbursing at least $6,000 for charitable causes during the past two years, according to records.

Norris authorized spending about $20,000 in trips, including at least eight to New York in the last year, and $2,500 for meals at Smith & Wollensky. Among his other expenses were $550 for 55 gold-plated cufflinks inscribed with "Commissioner" and an $81.90 nylon sleeve for his laptop computer.

An internal police audit of the private expense account -- which was largely funded by stock acquired decades ago -- found that $8,400 was unaccounted for. The audit that O'Malley ordered will examine whether police officials used the fund for personal or business reasons, city officials have said.

Norris said he welcomed the review.

"I'd like to let the auditors take a look at this," Norris said.

On Tuesday, City Council members said that they would hold hearings next month about Norris' use of the fund.

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 stock and grew substantially. In 1983, police consolidated the three charity funds into one "supplemental account."

The fund remained unknown to many in city government, and its use shifted to that of an expense account for travel, meals and other purposes.

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