U.S. Supreme Court moves to uphold public corruption law used against Norris

May 18, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld yesterday the public corruption law used by Maryland federal prosecutors in a number of recent high-profile cases, including those against Edward T. Norris, the former Baltimore police commissioner, John S. Stendrini, his chief of staff, and Stephen P. Amos, the former executive director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

The law lets U.S. prosecutors pursue virtually any local corruption investigation, provided that the probe is linked to a government agency that received at least $10,000 in federal funds. Prosecutors do not have to prove a connection between the corruption and federal dollars.

Norris and Stendrini pleaded guilty in March to misusing money that came from a little-known police expense account. Both men spent the money on romantic encounters with women and other abuses. The two could face 12- and 6-month sentences, respectively, when they are sentenced next month.

Amos is awaiting trial on charges that he misused millions of dollars in crime-fighting grants, in part to pay for staff for then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Critics called the law used in these cases unconstitutional, saying it allowed federal authorities to delve into cases that should be the realm of state and local prosecutors.

Last fall, the high court agreed to hear a Minneapolis bribery case to determine whether Congress exceeded its constitutional authority in adopting the statute.

In a unanimous decision yesterday, the high court supported the law - sometimes referred to as its criminal code number "666" -- saying it helped protect federal money. It noted that Congress enacted the statute only after other legislation had failed to protect federal interests.

"Money is fungible, bribed officials are untrustworthy stewards of federal funds, and corrupt contractors do not deliver dollar-for-dollar value," wrote U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

The law is popular among prosecutors, including the U.S. attorney for Maryland, Thomas M. DiBiagio. During his more than two years in office, DiBiagio has put an emphasis on fighting public corruption.

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