O'Malley's ability to pick top officials is criticized

With Clark under scrutiny, detractors point to others

O'Malley's ability to choose right people for key posts is criticized

May 23, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The mayor who calls crime-fighting his first priority is on his third top cop.

Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel disagreed with Mayor Martin O'Malley's zero-tolerance policing strategies and lasted just 57 days.

Then came Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who entertained mistresses on the public dime and wound up pleading guilty to federal corruption charges.

Now Commissioner Kevin P. Clark has temporarily stepped aside pending an investigation into an alleged domestic assault.

That O'Malley's most important appointee also has been his most problematic raises questions about his ability to put the right people in key posts, critics say.

"It doesn't bode well for a mayor who ran on an anti-crime platform that the first one resigned, the second one is a convicted felon and the third one is in trouble," said Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat and an outspoken foe of O'Malley's. "He hasn't had a great success rate with his appointees."

Regardless of whether the assault allegations hold up against Clark, the mayor could pay a price for the perception that the Police Department in one of America's most violent cities is in turmoil -- again, political observers say.

"This is his flagship issue -- crime and crime control," said Matthew Crenson, chairman of the political science department at the Johns Hopkins University. "It's the issue on which he got elected. Instability in the Police Department and in the commissioner's office can hurt him."

Even O'Malley, a Democrat who is widely expected to run for governor in 2006, acknowledges that the controversy distracts people from progress the department is making. He says violent crime in Baltimore has fallen to its lowest level since the 1970s.

"I think we're doing some really positive things as a city ... [but] we're all talking about this," he said. "We're not talking about that, the fact that we're almost 10 percent under homicides from last year. So there's a great deal of frustration."

The latest dispute grew out of an incident at Clark's home about 4 a.m. May 15. Police stationed outside Clark's North Baltimore apartment filed reports of a domestic dispute between the commissioner and his fiancM-ie, Blanca Gerena. Neither officer reported signs of physical injuries, but both said that Gerena stated that Clark had assaulted her.

Gerena and Clark later said they had argued but there was no assault.

At O'Malley's request, Howard County police are investigating. A police spokeswoman said Friday the probe was under way.

O'Malley has had troubles with other top officials, and the mayor has stood by many of them.

In December 2000, the same month he was sworn in as O'Malley's housing commissioner, Paul T. Graziano was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge at a Fells Point bar, where patrons said he made loud, anti-gay remarks. He acknowledged having a drinking problem and entered an inpatient alcohol treatment program. He remains on the job.

Then-City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. was accused in May 2002 after police said he tried to interfere with officers arresting his nephew on drug charges. Zollicoffer weathered that storm. He left the office voluntarily last month to return to private practice.

More recently, two lower-level O'Malley appointees have come under scrutiny: Gary M. Brooks, who left his position in December as chief executive of the Baltimore Community Development Finance Corp., a city-related lending agency; and Owen Tonkins, who around the same time stepped down as head of O'Malley's Office of Minority Business Development.

Federal prosecutors investigating the City Council have named both in subpoenas, which asked if any gifts were provided to the men.

There could be an upside to the string of controversies if O'Malley learns from experience, observers say.

The last time his police commissioner was in trouble, O'Malley stood firmly behind him. The mayor criticized the news media for questioning Norris' lavish use of a departmental expense account, resisted calls for an independent investigation and narrowly limited the scope of the audit eventually conducted for the city.

Norris -- who left the Baltimore job on his own accord to lead the state police -- pleaded guilty in March to federal public corruption charges.

This time around, the mayor also was supportive of his commissioner, calling him the best Baltimore has had in decades. But O'Malley, who was traveling in Rome when the domestic dispute occurred, was quicker to call for an independent investigation.

A day after the news broke and about two hours before O'Malley's plane touched down at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the mayor's office was issuing a statement saying that Howard County police would investigate and that Clark would take a paid leave until the probe was completed.

"He's just better at what he does now," said Arthur W. Murphy, a Baltimore political consultant.

Crenson also believes the difference is an older-but-wiser O'Malley.

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