Ambition marred Norris' treatment

U.S. attorney's ambition marred the treatment of Norris

July 24, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

FORMER BALTIMORE police Commissioner Ed Norris, who pleaded guilty to misuse of funds and tax irregularities, began his six-month prison term Thursday, the same week two Justice Department assistant attorneys made a motion that would prevent the defense from questioning the motives of U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio in prosecuting investment banker Nathan Chapman.

It was DiBiagio's office that prosecuted Norris, and the question everyone should be asking - but that no one has - is, given DiBiagio's e-mails suggesting that he was pushing for "front-page" indictments of public officials, whether we should cast a skeptical eye on the case of the departed commish.

Some truth in advertising is due here. When Norris was accused of misusing funds from a police supplemental account, I defended him. Norris said the lunches and dinners he paid for with money from the account were used to schmooze folks in New York, New Orleans and Baltimore to raise funds for our city's Police Foundation. DiBiagio said in a news conference after Norris was indicted that it wasn't true. Norris, DiBiagio said, spent the money on dinners, hotel rooms and lingerie for several mistresses.

I said in 2002, when the story came to light, and I say now that if it's not my money, it's not my problem. Contrary to the impression of many, Norris didn't spend taxpayer money. The police department's supplemental fund was started with donations back in the 1930s and grew with investments.

Norris was required to pay back - and did pay back - any questionable expenditures. That should have ended the matter. Because no federal money was misspent, you have to wonder just what DiBiagio's jurisdiction was in this matter. Let's be blunt about it: He had none.

That mattered not to the chorus of Norris-bashers who went into overdrive when the charges were announced. Ed Norris is a corrupt cop, they chanted. Ed Norris is a criminal. Ed Norris is the Antichrist. Ed Norris, Ed Norris, Ed Norris.

But since the revelations about DiBiagio's e-mails, it's the U.S. attorney who's the bad guy. The characterizations of both men are off the mark. Norris is more of a good guy who used bad judgment regarding the use of the police supplemental fund. DiBiagio isn't a bad guy, just an ambitious one. And in his ambition, he's had his enablers right here in Baltimore urging him to handle things clearly not within his constitutional purview.

There's Mayor Martin O'Malley, constantly urging DiBiagio to prosecute more handgun crimes at the federal level and criticizing him for not doing it often or fast enough. Some have suggested that if O'Malley would just adequately fund the city's state's attorney's office, Baltimore could prosecute more of its own gun cases.

Then there's the state's attorney's office itself, run by Patricia Jessamy, who has been only too eager to kick up to the federal level cases that rightly and logically belong in state court. Take, for example, the case of Darrell L. Brooks, who pleaded guilty - in federal court, not a state one - to the firebombing that took the lives of the Dawson family in East Baltimore nearly two years ago. I'm still waiting for someone to tell me exactly what federal law Brooks violated that superseded state law and justified his case being sent to federal court.

And there's one other DiBiagio enabler: Norris himself.

Let's go back a couple of years to those heady days when Norris - with the help of Deputy Commissioner Barry Powell - was the first police commissioner in years to lower Baltimore's crime rate. Norris and O'Malley came up with the idea of bringing "Federal Day" to Baltimore. On Federal Day, city hood rats caught by police would have their cases kicked up to federal courts, with their high conviction rates and mandatory minimum sentences. It was DiBiagio, the ambitious one, who urged going slowly on the matter.

Too bad DiBiagio didn't use the same restraint in the case of Eric Stennett, another Baltimore thug. The U.S. attorney personally tried Stennett's state crimes in federal court. And let's not forget DiBiagio's dispute with Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly in the matter of Jamal Abeokuto, accused of murdering 8-year-old Marciana Ringo in December 2002.

DiBiagio wanted to try Abeokuto first, on federal extortion charges. Cassilly felt, rightly, that Abeokuto first should be tried for murder. Anything else would have to wait. When you look at the pattern of DiBiagio's behavior and decisions over the past few years, you have to wonder why anyone was surprised by e-mails that suggested that our U.S. attorney may be as motivated by ambition as justice.

And you have to figure that Norris is sitting in his cell these days, pondering anew that age-old saying: "Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it."

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