Anti-crime unit defends staff hirings

Workers, upset by probe, are called `professionals'

August 30, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

As the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention grew rapidly into an agency that manages about $90 million of anti-crime grants, its top officials say they sought to hire the best people available.

Many have advanced degrees in relevant fields and years of experience in anti-crime programs at the federal, state and local levels, officials say.

But a federal investigation has raised questions about how and why staff members were hired and what work they did. A federal grand jury has subpoenaed tens of thousands of pages of records, including another large batch delivered Wednesday.

Investigators are trying to find out whether federal funds were used for political tasks or to pay "ghost" employees who might have been on the payroll but did not do work for the agency, which is overseen by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

A few employees with political ties have been hired, but in each case they had credentials for the jobs and performed them well, the employees and top agency officials said.

The U.S. attorney's office refuses to comment on the case, and no evidence of wrongdoing has been made public.

The investigation and the publicity about the agency have left many employees puzzled and distressed.

"I feel frustrated," said Mary Beth Stapleton, the agency's program specialist for substance abuse prevention. "We do a lot of good work for children and families. I don't understand why the allegations are there."

John D. Cohen, a consultant who has been working to improve communications between public safety agencies in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, said he has no idea why prosecutors subpoenaed the records of the grant under which he was paid.

"It makes you stressed out. How can it not?" he said. "I take ethical issues very seriously."

Other employees say the investigation is interfering with the agency's mission of awarding and managing more than 1,600 grants to programs intended to reduce crime.

`It takes some time'

Dozens of agency workers have had to produce documents subpoenaed by the U.S. attorney's office, and others have been interviewed by FBI agents.

"When you have to produce every document you've ever created, it takes some time," one employee said. "I've been told to hand over everything I've created since 1999, and all e-mails."

Townsend is locked in a race for governor that polls indicate is tight. She has described the investigation as "political garbage," noting that Thomas M. DiBiagio, the U.S. attorney leading it, was recommended for his post by Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the likely Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Stephen P. Amos, the agency's director, said the agency's records will stand up to federal scrutiny.

"The people who work here are well-credentialed professionals, many of them with long work histories in the criminal justice arena," he said.

The office has grown rapidly in recent years and has 44 salaried and contractual state employees. To deal with the growing number of grants it manages, the agency also employs 34 people through the University of Maryland.

University employees

The documents delivered Wednesday to the grand jury included personnel records for people the university hired under crime-control grants and records of all grants and related materials the crime-control office awarded to the school.

In two lengthy interviews, Amos and agency spokesman Rob Weinhold described the job assignments of the 32 current employees whose records were subpoenaed and their academic credentials and job experience.

Several have doctorates, Weinhold said, and many others have master's or law degrees, or extensive law-enforcement experience.

Amos said the office's hiring procedures vary with the job. Some jobs are posted on the state's Web site and advertised in newspapers, he said, and in other cases the agency tries to recruit a specific person.

In still other cases, Amos said, he calls professional organizations for suggestions of candidates to interview. For some positions, the applicants are screened by an advisory group before a candidate is recommended for his final decision.

Amos said that since he became the agency head in 2000, Townsend has never asked him to hire a particular person.

"Never have I been approached and asked to hire someone for what I believe to be political reasons or purposes," he said.

Some political ties

Amos says the office has looked for professional qualifications in its hiring decisions, but over the years it has hired some people with political ties.

William Mann, who worked for the agency in a low-level position for less than six months in 1999, was a volunteer in the 1998 Glendening-Townsend campaign. He went on from the crime-control office to the lieutenant governor's staff and now works for the campaign.

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