Through it all, Norris still manages to smile

December 12, 2003|By Michael Olesker

IN HIS hour of public humiliation, Edward T. Norris emerged from the U.S. District Courthouse yesterday afternoon smiling confidently. This was considered quite remarkable for a man formally accused of stealing money for hotel rooms, clothing, cologne and Victoria's Secret negligees for "romantic encounters" with a series of women who were not his wife. In police circles, such allegations give an entirely new meaning to the term "undercover operation."

The former Baltimore police commissioner and state police superintendent, having pleaded not guilty to all federal charges just minutes earlier, walked out of the courthouse clutching his wife's hand and tried to ignore the first voice hollering at him from a few yards away.

"Guilty or not guilty?" a TV reporter cried.

Norris kept smiling and did not break stride. "Guilty or not guilty," the voice hollered again. The smile never went away, and neither did the reporter. Now Norris turned and saw there were more of them farther along the sidewalk, a whole scrum of reporters and photographers, maybe 50 of them waiting for him. Still smiling, he turned to his wife and tried to make a joke to get them through the moment.

"Did you think I was this important?" he said softly.

"No, I didn't," his wife, Kathryn, replied. "You're a very important man."

She said it in gently supportive tones. They were two souls trying to chuckle their way past the graveyard. His wife wore a dark outfit and high black boots, and an expression that said, I trust my husband no matter what these annoying charges say.

Norris wore a dark suit buttoned so tightly that it bulged at the bottom and looked a couple of sizes too small. Too many dinners at Fleming's and Ixia, too much drinking at the Hyatt Regency Bar and those hotels up in New York and Canada. And so much of it on money that wasn't his.

Norris was smiling yesterday, but the smile was forced and absurd. He faces federal charges of the most embarrassing sort. He is accused of violating public trust. He is accused of pretending to be one type of man while secretly behaving like another. He is accused of using the great national anxiety over terrorist attacks to disguise a weekend's romp in New York.

Remember Norris and terrorism? He was one of the first booming voices warning the government not to leave American cities unprotected. He went to Washington to sound the alarm. Also, to Toronto and to New York. At least, that's what he said he did.

But he left the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference early -- it was just weeks after the terrorist attacks -- for what the government calls a "romantic encounter" in New York, where he ran up hotel and dining expenses of more than $1,400.

And he went to New York, the government says, "purporting to attend a terrorism meeting ... that he knew had been postponed." He ran up hotel and dining expenses this time of nearly $800.

None of this was his money to spend -- not like this, it wasn't.

Also, not to be minimized, Norris is accused of rank stupidity. The feds say his "romantic encounters" involved his bodyguards chauffeuring around the ladies, and the officers then cooling their heels "at residences and other locations during these romantic encounters."

If the language of the indictment is true, it marks one of the rare times in recorded history where a man commits marital infidelity -- and brings along his own witnesses. (Not to mention, the overtime clock was running while they waited for the boss.)

Frankly, such "romantic" allegations shouldn't be anybody's business but Norris' and his wife's -- except that it wasn't his own money financing the alleged encounters. He is accused of blithely taking money that any child would understand did not belong to him: about $20,000 from an off-the-books fund designed for police business, which instead was spent at hotels and bars and ballparks, and for Valentine's Day gifts from Victoria's Secret.

What were legitimate expenses for the fund? On Wednesday, when he announced the indictment of Norris and former Norris chief of staff John Stendrini, U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio was asked that precise question.

"Bulletproof vests," snapped DiBiagio.

Maybe Victoria's Secret is now doing under-the-counter business in bulletproof bustiers.

Outside the federal courthouse yesterday, with daylight fading, Norris stood in front of TV cameras and said a few words, none regarding the criminal charges. He said he was thankful for the opportunity to serve in law enforcement for 24 years. The smile never left his face.

"How will you defend yourself?" one reporter asked.

"What happened to all the money?" another shouted.

But Norris, pretending he hadn't heard, said, "My wife and I are gonna leave now and figure out what to do next." And then he was gone, trailed by the big scrum of reporters, and by his little secrets.

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