Invoice affirms search for chief

Private firm hired to probe replacements for Norris a month before indictment

Bakground checks began Nov. 10

$23,000 bill for research accrued as Ehrlich denied readying for official's loss

January 06, 2004|By Del Quentin Wilber and David Nitkin | Del Quentin Wilber and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A month before former Maryland State Police Superintendent Edward T. Norris was indicted by a federal grand jury, the governor's office hired a private investigation firm, spending more than $23,000 for background checks of potential replacements.

The search was under way even as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. expressed public support for Norris and denied that he was looking for possible replacements.

A bill submitted to the state by the investigation firm, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, shows that private detectives conducted an extensive review of candidates. They did 79.6 hours of interviews and drove nearly 1,419 miles in the course of their work, the invoice shows.

The bill says the background investigations began Nov. 10 and concluded Dec. 8 - two days before Norris was indicted on federal corruption charges and resigned from the state's top law-enforcement job.

On Dec. 1, three weeks after the investigation began, Ehrlich denied the existence of a search and other details of an article in The Sun reporting the use of private investigators to conduct background checks. "There is no truth to any of that," Ehrlich said, referring to the article.

Ehrlich's aides stood by their boss yesterday, saying the checks did not constitute a search.

"We never did conduct a search," said Jervis S. Finney, Ehrlich's counsel. "We had the five or six names [of candidates from a previous search] and we conducted a background investigation on that. ... A search means a search for other people, a search for people who might qualify."

Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said: "There was no search. There was a small list of candidates the governor had in hand, and he looked no further. ... He solicited no additional names."

Asked how background checks are different from a search, Schurick said: "We're parsing words here."

"It's fundamental," he added. "Having a short list of people you are considering - and a search - those are two very different things."

Finney said Ehrlich hired the private investigators to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. State troopers typically investigate the backgrounds of those considered for top state positions.

"It certainly seemed that having state police investigate people who would be state police superintendent might involve a conflict of interest," Finney said. "This was a special individual situation, which arose under particular circumstances, and it needed very individualized attention from a special investigator."

The day Norris was indicted, Dec. 10, Ehrlich appointed Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins - the state's secretary of veterans affairs, a retired state trooper and former member of the House of Delegates - as acting state police superintendent.

On Dec. 1, Ehrlich said he would not conduct a national search for a new police chief but would turn to others he had previously considered for the job if Norris were indicted and resigned.

At the time, sources familiar with the search for a new superintendent said the governor's office had a list of six replacements - four in the state police, Hutchins and Douglas DeLeaver, chief of the Maryland Transit Administration Police and a former trooper. Hutchins, DeLeaver and Norris were among the candidates for the top job in late 2002.

The use of background investigators illustrates the Ehrlich administration's concern that top-level employees might have personal problems that could embarrass the governor.

Ehrlich's first choice to head the Baltimore Department of Social Services, Arnold R. Tompkins, pleaded guilty in 2001 to misdemeanor public corruption charges in Ohio, where he was a former welfare chief.

A spokesman for the Maryland department said he wasn't sure state officials knew about the conviction before naming Tompkins to the post. Tompkins never took office.

Last month, Col. Scott A. Sewell resigned as chief of the Maryland Natural Resources Police on the same day he appeared in court on allegations that he had threatened violence and harassed and stalked another state employee. The complaint was dismissed when the alleged victim failed to appear.

Norris was indicted Dec. 10 on charges that he conspired to misapply funds, misapplied funds and made a false statement on a mortgage application when he was city police commissioner. Federal prosecutors alleged in the indictment that Norris used an expense account - a former charity fund - to stock his house with liquor, buy himself clothes and finance trips for extramarital romantic encounters.

He and his then-chief of staff, John Stendrini, who was also indicted on the misappropriation charges and on one count of obstructing justice, used about $20,000 of the fund's money for personal expenses, the indictment states.

Norris timeline

Nov. 10: Private investigators are hired to conduct background checks of potential replacements for Maryland State Police Superintendent Edward T. Norris.

Nov. 30: The Sun publishes an article about a search for potential replacements and background investigation being conducted by private company.

Dec. 1: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. denies that he is searching for a replacement. "There is no truth to any of that," he says of the article.

Dec. 8: The background checks into a potential replacement conclude.

Dec. 10: Norris is indicted on federal corruption charges stemming from his tenure as city police commissioner.

Dec. 10: Ehrlich appoints Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins to take over as acting superintendent.

Jan. 5: Ehrlich's top aides defend the governor. "We never did conduct a search," said Jervis S. Finney, Ehrlich's counsel. "We had the five or six names [of candidates from a previous search] and we conducted a background investigation on that. ... A search means a search for other people, a search for people who might qualify."

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