Norris letter apologizes to Baltimoreans for spending

Commissioner questioned over use of unofficial fund

August 24, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

In an "open letter to the people of Baltimore," city Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris profusely apologized for his use of a little-known departmental fund to finance more than $178,000 in expenses, including trips to New York, expensive meals at trendy restaurants and gifts to fellow officers and others.

"I am writing to apologize profoundly to the members of my department, to the Mayor who brought me to this city, and to the people of Baltimore who have looked to me to help protect their lives and their property," Norris wrote in a letter delivered to The Sun yesterday and dated Thursday.

"I have embarrassed and raised questions in the minds of many, by my handling of the commissioner's expense account. ..."

The letter is Norris' most extensive apology for his handling of the fund, which was originally intended to help those in need during the Great Depression but evolved into an expense account for police commissioners.

Mayor Martin O'Malley has ordered an independent audit of the account's books to determine whether money was used appropriately. Police officials said O'Malley, who could not be reached yesterday, knew Norris was writing the letter.

Norris also could not be reached for comment.

The fund financed, among other things: hundreds of dollars in jackets and sweat shirts for commanders who were chilly at a baseball game; at least eight visits to New York City by Norris in the past year, some of which he could not recall; more than $2,500 at a New York steakhouse during those trips; and a Baltimore hotel stay for the manager of the steakhouse, who attended an Orioles' game with Norris that night in the mayor's luxury box.

Norris also came under fire by outside ethics experts for using the fund to finance a trip to New York for the funeral of his chief of staff's mother in December. During that trip he interviewed for a top police post in Long Island, N.Y.

Norris had defended his use of the account for those expenses, saying they were all related to business, especially recruiting and learning about preventing terrorist attacks.

Reimbursement offered

Norris wrote in his letter that he would reimburse the fund if the audit "finds personal or improper expenditures."

The commissioner has previously conceded that supervision of the account was lax and many expenses were poorly documented.

At least 30 times, Norris and his aides submitted receipt stubs - totaling about $4,700 - that did not identify the restaurant and noted only the cost of the meal.

In the letter, Norris said that he "should have treated the fund from the start as a public fund, even though it was not and never had been."

"Had I done this," Norris wrote, "we would have full and complete records of how the money was used, erasing all doubt. ... "

O'Malley ordered the audit by Ernst & Young after The Sun reported the fund's existence last week and detailed its accounting problems, which included many checks written to Norris' driver, Agent Thomas Tobin.

Two days before the newspaper began reviewing hundreds of departmental documents related to the fund, Tobin returned more than $12,000 in cash. Tobin said he had kept the cash in a safe in the commissioner's office.

In two years, Norris authorized nearly $50,000 in checks to Tobin to cover expenses.

In his letter, Norris defended Tobin, saying the agent acted only at his direction. "I told him to make these transactions," Norris wrote. "It has been particularly painful for me to see questioned the integrity of this dedicated 22-year veteran."

Norris also defended the $250,000 in overtime earned by his five-member security and investigative detail during a recent 18-month period. Tobin and "other members of my detail have earned the overtime," Norris wrote.

Being `above reproach'

Norris said he decided to offer his apology for two reasons. The death Thursday morning of a Baltimore police officer "reminded me that all my actions as police commissioner should be above reproach," he wrote.

The other was "a reporter asking whether questions about the fund have distracted me from our all-too-serious daily responsibilities," Norris wrote. "They have."

Norris concluded the letter, "I'm sorry for my failings as a human being, but I ask for your support in rededicating us all to the fight against the violence that still takes so many lives."

City Council members, who will hold hearings into Norris' spending next month, said they accepted the apology but still want answers.

"It's good that he's willing to come forward and admit his mistakes, but I want to make sure that all of the unanswered questions are answered," said City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. "I think we need to get all the facts out in the open."

Harris added that he plans to introduce a resolution recommending that the remaining money in the account be used only for its original intentions, to help needy police officers.

"I'm glad he's apologized, and I'm glad he's kind of changed as far as [conceding that] this money should be public money," said City Council President Sheila Dixon. "And hopefully, as a result of the audit that I understand should be completed in the next two to three weeks, we won't find any other issues as relate to this fund."

Sun staff writers Laura Vozzella and Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

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