Eighteen months after launching a wide-ranging public corruption investigation into the financial practices of the Baltimore City Council, federal prosecutors dropped their criminal probe yesterday without charging anyone.
"Our office is charged with considering credible information concerning potential crimes," Maryland's interim U.S. Attorney Allen F. Loucks said yesterday.
"As a result of such, we have investigated various practices of the Baltimore City Council and concluded that the evidence available to date does not support a successful prosecution."
The end of the well-publicized inquiry lifts a cloud of suspicion that had been hanging over elected city officials and several prominent business leaders.
Some of those caught up in the investigation's tentacles expressed relief at yesterday's outcome.
But others railed against the aggressiveness of former U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, whose administration started the probe after The Sun published several articles detailing nepotism, gifts to council members and other ethically questionable practices.
"I had to defend myself in the community all of the time, and I didn't know why," said Edwin F. Hale Sr., who was subpoenaed for financial records in his role as chairman of 1st Mariner Bank.
"Where is there accountability for someone like Tom, when someone just throws out a bunch of subpoenas to further his political career? Who do you go to to cry foul?
"I'm at a loss to understand how this can be," he said. "This is like something out of Stalin."
Loucks' decision to shut down his predecessor's investigation came weeks after his office abandoned a separate corruption case against a former state agency head accused of misusing grant funds.
The indictment against Stephen P. Amos, former director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, was dismissed in January at Loucks' request. The federal prosecutor said a legal ruling uncovered by his office made moving forward with the case impossible.
In an interview, Loucks, who took office in January, said the two cases were unrelated.
He reiterated his belief that his role is to be a caretaker for the office, which awaits a presidential appointment of a new permanent U.S. attorney. The priorities for the office, including public corruption cases, have not changed, he said.
Probe began in 2003
The City Council investigation started in late 2003 and cast a wide net, subpoenaing records from all 19 members of the council.
The Sun had revealed that slightly more than half the council members had a relative on the payroll. Members also received perks and free tickets, including parking passes from Arrow Parking Inc., which was seeking a tax break from the council to build a garage.
Nearly all members said they received passes to events at the Baltimore Zoo, 1st Mariner Arena and the Senator Theatre.
After those articles, the city's Board of Ethics issued opinions that three council members violated ethics law by hiring siblings as assistants and that all 19 members erred ethically by accepting the parking passes.
Changes in law
The City Council also revised its ethics law to explicitly prohibit officials from accepting gifts from those doing business with the city and to extend an existing ban on employing relatives.
The city eliminated a largely unregulated, $5,000-per-member expense account system that had existed since the late 1960s, replacing it with a system that required documentation before reimbursement.
"Institutions grow, change and improve. This is an example of how procedures have been changed and modified, as they should be," said City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler.
But Tyler added: "We certainly know there was no basis for a federal investigation, and that's the conclusion that's been reached."
In a midday news conference at City Hall, neither City Council President Sheila Dixon nor her attorneys criticized the investigation, which was launched after the September 2003 primary and continued through last November's general election.
"We don't know the impetus behind the investigation, nor do we know the full extent of the issues the government investigated," Dixon said yesterday in a statement.
"But we are again pleased that the matter is concluded and we can continue to do the city's business without this distraction."
Other current and former council members - some of whom denounced both the newspaper articles and the subsequent federal investigation - were similarly muted in their reaction, expressing more relief than anger.
Several had the issue of the investigation raised by political opponents, said Councilman Robert W. Curran, who represents Northeast's 3rd District. "I feel in my heart that suspicion was unjustly cast on us as a body," Curran said.
Private attorneys hired by the city to represent council members during the investigation stressed yesterday that although records were subpoenaed, members never appeared before a grand jury and never received letters saying they were a target of the investigation.