Norris' life of privilege ends with plea in court

March 09, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE WORLD of privilege is different from yours and mine. It's a world where public servants commit fraud and consider it a professional perk, and the corporate execs make big money and think it's never enough. Edward T. Norris imagined he had a place in such a world. Yesterday, he was shoved out the back door.

The sense of privilege, and the accompanying public lying, ended in Courtroom 5-D of the Edward A. Garmatz Courthouse, with Norris pleading guilty to defrauding the Baltimore Police Department he once headed - and with Norris scampering pathetically down a back staircase to avoid reporters who had the naive hope that he might have a syllable of public apology to offer after so many months of pretending he was an honest, stand-up guy.

He stood there before U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett, and the sense of privilege seemed to bulge out of his very clothing. As Bennett read the list of charges against him, Norris seemed impatient for the judge to finish. As Bennett asked if he understood each count, Norris nodded his head. As he did, the fat on the back of his neck swelled over his shirt collar, and his pin-striped suit jacket ballooned at his hips.

He is a man who ate too much and drank too much, and figured he could do it on somebody else's dime. He thought he was a privileged character. The fraudulent spending, according to U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, totaled about $31,000. Norris never imagined anybody would check. In the world of privilege he imagined he inhabited, he figured nobody would dare inquire.

So he spent the money while pretending to conduct the public's business. He did it, in the frightening aftermath of Sept. 11, while pretending to be consumed by out-of-town anti-terrorist meetings. And he did it in the company of women who were not his wife, who were also paid for on the public's dime.

As the charges were read aloud yesterday, Norris sipped from a paper cup of water, looked around the courtroom, or stared at the defense table. Moments later, all embarrassment unacknowledged, he was gone.

"The rules apply to everyone," prosecutor DiBiagio said, minutes after Norris fled the courthouse. "Bank robbers and drug dealers, and corrupt public officials."

Norris wanted us to believe he'd committed - at worst - errors of judgment. He wanted to say he had mistakenly assumed the police supplemental account was his to use as he wished. Yesterday, he finally admitted otherwise. The overt lying was there for everyone to see. There had been no errors of judgment. There was only greed, and a sense of privilege.

He knew the difference from the start. As it turns out, he knew it from his first days as police commissioner, when three different department fiscal employees explained to Norris that the fund "could not be used for personal purposes." He knew it when he had his chief of staff, the indicted John Stendrini, write phony letters saying he needed cash for police business, when in fact it was spent "on expensive meals, hotels, gifts, and other items often related to romantic encounters with different women in Baltimore, New York and elsewhere."

And he knew it after The Sun's Del Wilber first revealed the string of financial violations, but he continued to lie to disguise what he had done. In a letter to this newspaper, Norris told readers, "The money was spent largely for training, recruiting, meetings with police officials here and in other parts of the country, travel related to these functions...Much of our travel was precipitated by the events of Sept. 11 and our need to establish a fast and dependable network with people I know and trust."

Shame on Norris.

The lying to his wife, to cover up his "romantic" flings, is as old as mankind's marriage vows. Except that Norris didn't have the class to spend his own money on his flings, the running around is a matter between Norris and his wife - who did not appear with him yesterday.

But the lying to a public whose sense of security was so shaken after Sept. 11 - that's a new low.

Too bad. Too bad for the city of Baltimore, which found in Norris its most competent police commissioner in years. Too bad for Norris, too, who had visions of the big time dancing in his head.

This is a guy who gave up the city job to become state police superintendent - but was duplicitous enough that, while publicly praising Mayor Martin O'Malley, was privately cursing the man who gave him his biggest professional break.

This is a guy who never met a camera he didn't like - not only pursuing TV reporters for exposure on the nightly news when he was running high, but acting in The Wire, the HBO crime series in which he played a recurring bit part. It was funny at first, a kind of in-joke for Baltimoreans seeing their commissioner as a police underling.

But the joke wasn't so funny as the truth became clear: Norris was an actor in ways we hadn't imagined. To him, it wasn't acting. The money that wasn't his, the good-time TV exposure, the women who weren't his wife: It was all a matter of privilege.

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