Misappropriated police funds fueled Norris' lavish lifestyle

Investigation tracked checks, receipts to reveal ex-official's corruption

March 09, 2004|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

It began with thousands of dollars in checks written to the Baltimore police commissioner's chauffeur.

From there, checks and hand-written receipt stubs led federal investigators down a trail that showed the city's top police officer abused the public's trust as he courted women with expensive dinners, gifts and lavish hotel stays - all at police expense.

Once the spotlight was shined on Edward T. Norris' spending and personal life, an indictment wasn't far behind.

The former New York police commander who came to Baltimore promising to rid the force of corruption pleaded guilty yesterday to federal tax and misappropriation charges, in a case that has at times been as much of an ordeal for the city as it has been for Norris.

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.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who vocally defended Norris when stories about the former commissioner's spending first appeared, said yesterday that he felt betrayed and upset by his former top officer's actions.

"I have a lot of mixed emotions - anger, disappointment, sadness," O'Malley said. "I'm embarrassed and disappointed that this happened under my watch."

Within days of taking over the reins of the department in April 2000, Norris was told by an agency official about the fund's existence and its purpose: to finance legitimate business expenses, according to a statement of facts in yesterday's plea agreement.

Previous commissioners had used the account - which had evolved from Great Depression-era charity funds - to finance athletic contests, departmental fund-raisers and the refurbishing of an antique patrol car in police headquarters.

Although Norris had a reputation as a no-nonsense crime-fighter, he also brought to Baltimore a sophisticated taste in wine, cigars and clothing. Well-dressed and groomed, it wasn't uncommon to spot him getting a manicure in his favorite Federal Hill salon.

According to prosecutors, it took only a few months before Norris dipped into the account to fund his lavish lifestyle. His first personal purchase was $172 worth of alcohol to stock his home.

Just over two years later, in August 2002, The Sun reported that Norris had used the fund to finance thousands of dollars in gifts, meals and trips, including one to New York to interview for another job.

When questioned, Norris said he could not recall the reasons for many of the excursions or who might have been his dinner guests.

He spent more than $2,500 at a Manhattan steak house during his frequent New York stays, according to hand-written receipts that only noted the total cost of the meals.

At the time, Norris vigorously defended his actions, saying he had done nothing wrong and was a victim of bad accounting.

"It was a terrible system," Norris said in August 2002. "Believe me, this was an accountant's nightmare."

In the wake of the newspaper's stories, the city launched an independent audit of the account, and Norris issued a public apology to the citizens of Baltimore.

When Norris abruptly resigned his job to join the Maryland State Police as superintendent in December 2002, the city deducted $7,663 in personal and questionable expenses from his $137,000 severance package.

By late January of last year, federal prosecutors and agents with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and Internal Revenue Service launched a grand jury investigation of Norris' spending habits.

Over the next few months, prosecutors subpoenaed the former commissioner's cellular phone records, laptop computer and personal appointment books. They also began hearing grand jury testimony from Norris' bodyguards.

Norris' driver, Agent Thomas Tobin, soon emerged as one of their key witnesses. He had been issued thousands of dollars in checks from the account to handle many of Norris' purchases and trips.

Despite the growing investigation, the state police superintendent struck a defiant tone in public as he clung to his job.

"I haven't done anything illegal," Norris said last summer. "I'll go to trial if it comes to that."

In December, prosecutors unsealed an indictment that alleged Norris used the fund to finance about $20,000 in personal expenses and on extramarital liaisons with several women. They also indicted his chief-of-staff, John Stendrini, on charges of misapplying funds and obstruction of justice. Those charges are still pending.

In the indictment and yesterday's plea deal, prosecutors laid out Norris' extensive use of the fund for his personal benefit. Besides stocking his house with alcohol, Norris also treated women to meals and stays at trendy hotels in New York.

"It wasn't their money, and they knew it," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven H. Levine said of Norris and Stendrini during yesterday's hearing.

Just two months after Norris was arraigned and said he was looking forward to his day in court, the former commissioner's lawyers said their client had pleaded guilty to put the case behind him.

Norris left the courthouse by a back exit to avoid reporters.

"Today, Ed Norris accepted full responsibility for the mistakes outlined in the charges to which he pled guilty," said Norris' lawyer, David B. Irwin. "He made the decision that a long, drawn-out trial would bring too much pain and embarrassment to his family, his friends and ... Baltimore."

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