Uncertainty in probe of Norris fund

Lawyers puzzled about federal grand jury inquiry

March 01, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Veteran defense lawyers and former prosecutors say it is unclear what charges, if any, might be brought as a result of a federal grand jury investigation into a loosely monitored and off-the-books expense account used by former Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris.

Federal prosecutors have wide latitude to open investigations and file charges, but experienced lawyers said the amount of money in question appears to be relatively small and noted that Norris was audited and has repaid personal expenses.

Both of those factors could weigh against bringing federal charges, they said.

Surprised at interest

"I'm very surprised there would be any federal interest in this," said Arnold M. Weiner, a defense lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney. "It's the kind of thing that involves a relatively small amount of money. And it doesn't have the elements of corruption that you see in the traditional case in which federal law enforcement officials have an interest in state matters."

The lawyers also said that the nature of the account might pose a complication for federal prosecutors. It did not contain taxpayer money, although it was in a governmental checking account. The fund started as a charity in the 1920s and 1930s, grew in value, and evolved into an expense account for several commissioners.

Weiner and other lawyers were reacting to the decision by U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio to serve the Baltimore Police Department with a grand jury subpoena on Thursday to obtain all records pertaining to the expense account.

Norris authorized more than $159,000 in expenses during his tenure as commissioner, including thousands of dollars spent on trips, gifts and meals.

The city ordered an independent audit of Norris' spending after The Sun disclosed its existence in August.

The city later deducted $7,688 for personal and questionable expenses related to the fund from Norris' $137,000 severance payment when he resigned from the department in December to join the Maryland State Police as superintendent.

Norris and his attorney, Andrew Jay Graham, declined to comment yesterday. The superintendent has denied any wrongdoing.

Broad powers

Although possible charges that might come from the investigation remain unclear, experienced attorneys stress that federal authorities have broad investigative powers and an expansive universe of statutes at their disposal.

Under mail and wire fraud statutes, lawyers said, prosecutors can bring charges if someone uses the mails, Internet or fax lines to further a criminal scheme.

"Something as innocuous as sending a check in the mail to pay a bill or using a credit card on the Internet to make a purchase, that's all it would take," said Gregg L. Bernstein, a defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor.

The lawyers said they were puzzled by the timing of the investigation. The audit into Norris' spending was completed three months ago.

Several of the attorneys believed it was significant that federal prosecutors have brought in an experienced financial investigator to look into the case. Carl P. Jaworski, who served more than two decades as an Internal Revenue Service agent, joined DiBiagio's office as a special investigator Monday.

Federal authorities will probably seek Norris' personal bank records -- if they don't already have them, the lawyers said.

"I'd be surprised if there wasn't a grand jury subpoena out for the bank records and phone records," said David B. Irwin, a former federal prosecutor. "The way to get the information on people is to get the checking account where he put the money."

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