Norris enters plea of guilty to corruption

Ex-police commissioner of Baltimore also admits lying on federal tax return

Sentence could be year in prison

Tapped department fund for gifts to women, trips, liquor, restaurant meals

March 09, 2004|By Gail Gibson and Del Quentin Wilber | Gail Gibson and Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Four years after he swept into Baltimore with a zero-tolerance plan for fighting crime and a blunt charm that helped defuse his critics, Edward T. Norris ended his run as one of Maryland's most visible law enforcement figures with a guilty plea yesterday to federal corruption and tax charges.

Norris, 43, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to conspiring to misuse money from a supplemental city police fund and lying on tax returns.

The former city police commissioner and Maryland state police superintendent is now a convicted felon and could face up to a year in prison at sentencing, scheduled for June 21.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Tuesday's editions about the federal conviction of former Baltimore police Commissioner Edward T. Norris misspelled the name of Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven H. Levin.

His attorneys are expected to ask that he receive a sentence of probation or home detention.

The federal charges against Norris grew from an off-the-books police expense account, which court records show Norris used to pay for extramarital encounters with several women and to satisfy an apparent taste for the good life.

His extravagant splurges included shopping trips to Coach and Nordstrom, outings with friends at pricey hotel bars, and steak dinners at Smith & Wollensky in New York and Flemings in the Inner Harbor.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said at a news conference that Norris' conviction was a "reminder of the embedded corruption here, and the emerging resolve not to look the other way."

"We deserve better," DiBiagio said. "We deserve public officials who are both effective and honest. The only way to get from here to there is a policy of zero tolerance [for corruption], backed up by an unyielding commitment and intractable belief that the rules apply to everyone."

In a 14-page statement of facts detailing the case, federal prosecutors said that evidence presented at a trial would have shown that Norris had taken steps to disguise his personal spending as being for legitimate department business and was wary of detection.

After a member of the department's legal office raised concerns about the spending pattern with internal affairs, Norris complained that the employee had "gone outside the family," according to court records.

When Norris worried that surveillance cameras at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Baltimore could have captured him going into a hotel room with an unidentified woman in December 2001, Norris' then-chief of staff John Stendrini and another department employee went to the hotel to look for video cameras, the court papers show.

Stendrini was charged along with Norris in a federal indictment in December and is scheduled to stand trial in June. His attorney did not return a phone call yesterday seeking comment.

In court, lawyers representing Norris said that if his case had gone to trial they would have disputed some of the government's allegations, which listed 34 instances of improper activity or spending by Norris in connection to the supplemental police account, originally created as a Depression-era charity fund.

But defense attorney David B. Irwin said the disagreements were minor and did not change the outcome of the case.

Without his wife

Norris came to court yesterday without his wife, Kathryn Norris, who accompanied him in earlier appearances. He escaped cameras by entering the courthouse through an underground garage, a courtesy not generally extended to criminal defendants. He declined to talk to reporters inside the courtroom.

Norris stood stiffly throughout the half-hour court hearing, his hands folded in front of him, and said little beyond answering questions from U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett about whether he understood the charges against him, his possible punishment and the implications of his felony conviction.

"Did you in fact commit the offenses as summarized by the government?" Bennett asked Norris at one point.

"As summarized," Norris replied.

Asked by Bennett what his plea was to the conspiracy charge and to the tax violation, Norris answered twice in a low voice, "Guilty."

The plea deal between Norris and federal prosecutors, first presented to Bennett late Friday and finalized over the weekend, could change. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a constitutional challenge to the anti-corruption statute that prosecutors relied on in charging Norris with conspiring to misuse money from the police supplemental account.

If the Supreme Court rules that the statute is unconstitutional on its face, Norris would be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea to that charge. His conviction for filing a false tax return would stand, although his potential punishment would drop - from a prison term of six to 12 months to a sentence of up to six months.

The high court is expected to rule by June. Norris will not be sentenced until that ruling has been issued, Bennett said.

Fine, restitution

Norris faced additional charges in federal court, including that he had lied on a mortgage loan application. The other charges are expected to be dropped at sentencing, where Norris also is expected to face a fine and restitution of up to $30,000.

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