Norris' attorneys push for dismissal, say corruption statute is too broad

Argument mirrors case Supreme Court will hear

February 24, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Attorneys for Edward T. Norris say public corruption charges against the former Baltimore police commissioner should be dismissed because the statute they are based on is too broad, arguing in recent court filings the same issue that the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take up next week in a case from Minnesota.

Norris is accused of misappropriating more than $20,000 from an off-the-books expense account to pay for lavish meals and gifts and to finance extramarital affairs while he headed the city Police Department. His attorneys said in court papers last week that the statute Norris is charged under unfairly "federalizes virtually the entire area of anti-corruption law" and is "unconstitutional on its face."

They are asking U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett to dismiss charges against Norris and his former chief of staff, John Strendini, who also was named in the indictment. Separately, Strendini asked for the case against him to be dismissed because of what his lawyer described as inappropriate remarks made by Maryland's top federal prosecutor at a news conference in December.

In announcing the charges against Norris and Strendini, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said the defendants had "repeatedly used the fund as if it were their personal ATM." He added: "If a police commissioner repeatedly lies, cheats and steals and we look the other way, what message does that send to law enforcement officers on the street?"

Defense lawyer Michael Schatzow, who represents Strendini, said in court papers that those remarks made "empanelment of an impartial jury all but impossible."

Federal prosecutors have not filed formal responses to the defendants' motions. Vickie E. LeDuc, a spokeswoman for DiBiagio's office, declined yesterday to comment on the issues raised in the defense motions.

One question - the constitutionality of the underlying federal statute in Norris' case - could be answered in the spring by the Supreme Court. The justices are scheduled to hear next week a Minneapolis bribery case to help determine whether Congress exceeded its constitutional authority in adopting the anti-corruption law.

The statute was designed to protect the billions of federal dollars distributed each year through a range of programs to state and local governments. The law allows U.S. prosecutors to pursue virtually any local corruption investigation, provided only that the probe is linked to an agency that received at least $10,000 in federal funds.

The statute does not require prosecutors to provide a link between the alleged offenses and the federal money, and defense attorneys and conservative law scholars across the country have raised concerns that the law goes too far in turning over to federal authorities what they say should be the realm of local and state prosecutors.

"Congress did not intend for federal law enforcement agencies to police the administration of private funds by public agencies," defense attorneys David B. Irwin and Joseph Murtha said in court papers filed in Norris' case. "The government cannot establish that the funds of the supplemental account are public funds, and subject to the jurisdiction of this court."

The Minneapolis case involves a real estate developer named Basim Omar Sarbi, who was charged under the corruption statute with bribing a local City Council member. A federal trial judge in Minnesota dismissed the indictment on the grounds that the anti-corruption statute was unconstitutional, but a divided appeals court reinstated the charges.

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