Top Norris aide pleads guilty to conspiracy

Stendrini admits using police account for gifts, romantic encounters

March 11, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

John S. Stendrini, who served as chief of staff under former Baltimore police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, pleaded guilty yesterday in the federal corruption probe that led to Norris' conviction this week and his disgraced departure from Maryland law enforcement.

Stendrini, 60, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring with Norris to use money from a little-known police expense account to pay for romantic liaisons, lavish meals, trips and gifts.

He could receive up to six months in prison at sentencing, scheduled for June 21.

Stendrini's plea came two days after Norris pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to the same conspiracy charge and to one count of lying on his tax returns. Together, the plea deals effectively close the federal investigation arising from the expense-account scandal first disclosed in The Sun almost 18 months ago.

Norris and Stendrini, both former high-ranking officers in the New York Police Department, came to Baltimore in early 2000 as part of a hard-charging effort to reduce crime rates and overhaul the troubled city Police Department. This week, they admitted spending thousands from the off-the-books expense account for personal reasons, even though they knew the fund was to be used only for the benefit of the department.

Norris acknowledged spending as much as $30,000 from the supplemental account to satisfy an apparent taste for the good life with shopping trips to Coach and Nordstrom, expensive steak dinners, and stays at trendy New York hotels. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven H. Levin said in court yesterday that Stendrini was responsible for a loss of between $5,000 and $10,000.

"In essence, Mr. Stendrini and Mr. Norris violated the trust of the people they were sworn to protect," Levin said.

Stendrini and his lawyer, Michael Schatzow, declined to comment outside the courtroom.

Court records filed by prosecutors say Stendrini used about $1,400 from the fund to pay for a "romantic encounter" in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada, when he was supposed to be attending a police conference about 90 miles away in Toronto.

After a Police Department employee raised concerns about how the money was being spent, Mr. Stendrini acknowledged "that they had been `hitting it pretty hard' and needed to slow down," prosecutors said in court records. "Other BPD employees would have testified that Mr. Norris made it clear to his staff that Mr. Stendrini `speaks for' him."

Court records also show that Stendrini took steps to disguise the improper spending from the expense account, created as a Depression-era charity fund.

To obtain money from the account, Norris or Stendrini would write disbursement letters "crafted to give the false impression that the funds were to be used, or had been used, for legitimate business expenditures," prosecutors said in court papers. Some of the letters "falsely specified that money had been spent on `training' or `equipment' when in fact the funds were used for personal matters, including expensive meals, hotels, gifts and other items often related to romantic encounters with different women."

Missing money

After inquiries by The Sun in summer 2002 about the use of the fund, Stendrini discovered that about $12,000 in expenditures could not be accounted for, court records show. Asked about the $12,000 discrepancy by First Deputy Mayor Michael Enright, Stendrini said the money had not been spent and was in a safe in the commissioner's office.

Stendrini and a member of Norris' personal protection unit then pooled their own money to replace the $12,000.

Stendrini, once a deputy inspector for the New York Police Department, and Norris have long-standing ties. Stendrini followed Norris to Baltimore in 2000, and again to the Maryland State Police last year when Norris was named superintendent.

Norris resigned that post after his indictment and is now living in the Tampa, Fla., area. He is not currently working and could receive up to a year in prison at his sentencing, also scheduled for June 21.

Like his former boss, Stendrini appeared yesterday at a morning court hearing before U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett in Baltimore's federal courthouse. But the two hearings were noticeably different.

Empty courtroom

Stendrini came to court accompanied only by his lawyer. The crowd of reporters that had attended Norris' hearing was gone, and Stendrini stood before a mostly empty courtroom gallery. He crisply answered Bennett's questions, entered his guilty plea and left without fanfare.

As with the plea deal between Norris and federal prosecutors, Stendrini would be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea in the case if the U.S. Supreme Court finds this spring that the anti-corruption statute underlying the case is unconstitutional.

The court is considering a corruption case from Minnesota, where the defendant has asserted that the federal law is overly broad. A ruling is expected by June.

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