Officials seek to end Norris' pension funds

City also wants return of severance payment

`It's all a legal matter'

Former top officer guilty of tax fraud, corruption

March 13, 2004|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Just days after former Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris pleaded guilty to federal corruption and tax-fraud charges, city officials launched an effort to halt his pension payments and are seeking the return of a $137,000 severance payment he received after abruptly quitting the force in late 2002.

In a letter sent to Norris' attorneys, city officials said they were demanding the return of the severance package and would no longer authorize the payment of an annual $6,850 pension because the former commissioner broke the law.

Under the terms of his city contract, Norris promised to "abide by laws, ordinances, rules and regulations that govern" the Police Department.

"It's not about friendship or pity," Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday. "It's about dollars that are owed to the people of Baltimore under the terms of the contract. It's all a legal matter. ... It's a simple matter that the people of Baltimore don't owe him these dollars under the terms of his contract."

"It's not a personal thing or an anger thing," the mayor said.

Norris' civil attorney, Jeffrey H. Scherr, and his criminal defense attorney, David B. Irwin, declined to comment.

Scherr said he had not seen the letter, which was obtained by The Sun. It is dated Wednesday and was signed by Deputy City Solicitor Donald R. Huskey.

"It is the City's position that the City has no obligation to Mr. Norris as a result of his most serious ethical breach of his employment agreement, to which he himself has publicly admitted," Huskey wrote.

"Mr. Norris knew he had breached his obligations under his employment agreement and, nonetheless, concealed his actions from the City in order to unjustly enrich himself at the expense of the City and its citizens," Huskey added.

Norris, 43, could not be reached yesterday.

On Monday, Norris pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to misuse thousands of dollars of departmental money while the city's top officer and lying on his tax returns.

Prosecutors said Norris abused an expense account to finance a lavish lifestyle that included extramarital liaisons with several women, gifts for the women, expensive hotel stays and meals at trendy restaurants. He also used the account, which evolved from decades-old charity funds, to stock his house with alcohol and to buy Valentine's Day gifts at Victoria's Secret for three women.

The former commissioner faces six months to a year in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for June 21.

Norris, a former New York police commander, was the city's top officer from April 2000 to December 2002, when he resigned to join the state police as superintendent.

As commissioner, he made $137,000 a year - the same amount of his severance.

Noting Norris' use of the expense account to finance personal and questionable expenses, the city deducted $7,663 from his severance payment. Norris' use of the fund was first reported in August 2002, prompting city officials to start an independent audit and review that led to the deduction.

Under the terms of his contract, Norris received an annual pension benefit equal to 5 percent of his salary, or $6,850, which was administered by a trust overseen by one of his attorneys and a city official. Huskey wrote that the city official would no longer approve payments to Norris from the trust.

It's not clear whether the city will be able to recoup the severance payment.

Besides employing a respected legal team since federal prosecutors began their investigation early last year, Norris has been unemployed since resigning as state police superintendent when he was indicted in December. He is living in Florida with his wife and young son.

Norris has experienced financial problems. In 1995, he filed for federal bankruptcy protection, reporting $78,716 in liabilities and $2,600 in assets.

When Norris left the city to join the state police and work for O'Malley's political rival, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the mayor publicly lamented the severance and pension benefits bestowed on Norris.

Characterizing the arrangement at the time as a "sweetheart" deal, O'Malley said he should have structured the deal differently.

"There were a lot of council members who cast tough votes to confirm and then reconfirm Norris, and they understandably feel like we got yahooed by this out-of-towner," O'Malley said in January last year. "Define yahooed as `to be fleeced and taken advantage of.'"

Council President Sheila Dixon said yesterday that she supported O'Malley's effort to recoup the severance and cut off pension payments.

"We should get it back," Dixon said. "That's a simple answer."

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