No lasting political harm seen for O'Malley, Ehrlich

Each employed, supported the former police official

December 11, 2003|By Laura Vozzella and David Nitkin | Laura Vozzella and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

First he was Mayor Martin O'Malley's larger-than-life sidekick, the barrel-chested cop with Big Apple charisma and zero tolerance for street crime.

Then he was Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s political coup, the prized appointee snatched from a nettlesome rival.

Now Edward T. Norris - O'Malley's former police commissioner and Ehrlich's ex-state police superintendent - is nothing but trouble for two of Maryland's most ambitious politicians.

His indictment yesterday cast a shadow on central themes of the two administrations: O'Malley's pledge to root out crime in the city and corruption in its Police Department and Ehrlich's promise to clean up state government. But political experts say O'Malley and Ehrlich could escape major damage, ironically, because both are connected to him.

Because each employed Norris, and each held him up as an example of an effective crime-fighter, neither is likely to mention Norris' troubles during a widely anticipated head-to-head campaign for governor in 2006.

"It's an issue neither of them is going to bring up in debate," said Matthew A. Crenson, chairman of the political science department at the Johns Hopkins University. "The only guy who benefits from this is probably [Montgomery County Executive] Doug Duncan," another potential gubernatorial candidate.

Additionally, the allegations against Norris carry strong personal overtones - buying lingerie for women and arranging for trips to New York City hotels - that may not extend beyond the superintendent.

"I think today everybody understands sex and politics - some people in power think with the wrong piece of anatomy," said Arthur W. Murphy, a Baltimore political consultant.

Ehrlich and O'Malley won't suffer long-term political damage if they quickly distance themselves from Norris, said Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy sciences at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who is not related to the superintendent.

"I don't think the average voter will hold O'Malley or Ehrlich responsible for somebody else's misbehavior, if they are not part of it," he said.

But both politicians supported Norris after the allegations came to light. O'Malley kept him on as police commissioner after The Sun reported on Norris' use of the account, calling him a good cop but a bad accountant. Ehrlich hired him after it was known that federal agents were investigating.

Yesterday, O'Malley seemed eager to distance himself from his one-time commissioner, friend and drinking buddy, whom the physically fit mayor once described as "a heavyset man with a crewcut."

The mayor said he'd become less satisfied with Norris midway through his tenure, saying the commissioner had lost his "zip" for the job. He said some things about Norris had always rubbed him the wrong way, including his practice of using lights and sirens in nonemergencies.

Likewise, after sending signals for weeks that he was standing by Norris in the face of a federal probe, Ehrlich accepted his resignation yesterday but said his employment was "subject to reinstatement."

At the same time, the governor praised Norris' work.

Ehrlich said "fundamental fairness" dictates that he consider rehiring Norris if the superintendent is exonerated.

But a conviction could end the Maryland career of a tough-talking Brooklyn-born cop who personified the mayor's effort to bring down Baltimore's murder rate. It fell by 17 percent over three years, according to police statistics.

When The Sun revealed in August 2002 that Norris had spent lavishly from an off-the-books account, O'Malley stood by the commissioner, resisting calls for an independent audit and criticizing the paper. The mayor eventually agreed to an audit that resulted in Norris repaying $7,663, and O'Malley said he considered the matter closed.

Asked yesterday how his administration missed things such as lingerie purchases, O'Malley said: "It was not the sort of audit where we sent a team of detectives to go interview store clerks or the bartender at Smith & Wollensky to see if, in fact, he remembered on this date four months ago whether a heavyset man with a crewcut walked into this place."

While Ehrlich and his staff knew of the federal probe when they hired Norris, they did not ask many questions about it. Paul Schurick, a communications director for the governor, said this year that the investigation was not a factor in the Norris hiring and was never discussed.

For Ehrlich, the Norris situation becomes the latest in a series of questionable personnel decisions from a governor who came to town promising to end corruption in Annapolis.

The governor's first choice to head the Baltimore social services department was convicted of contract-steering in Ohio; his second choice lacks the five years of managerial experience the law says is needed.

The governor gave a $92,000- a-year job to former Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, despite his having received an ethics reprimand. Mitchell soon resigned. Ehrlich also appointed former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who resigned as the state's chief executive after his conviction on mail-fraud charges that were later overturned, to the university Board of Regents.

Sun staff writer Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

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