Profit and public rehabilitation

August 23, 2005|By Donald F. Norris

EDWARD T. NORRIS, former Maryland state police superintendent and former Baltimore City police commissioner, was convicted last year of stealing public funds and of filing false tax returns. He was sentenced to and has recently completed serving six months in a federal prison and has returned to Baltimore to begin a court-ordered 500 hours of community service.

Mr. Norris' community service obligation is being made a mockery as he has been elevated to the status of a local "personality" by a Baltimore radio station, intent on capitalizing on his notoriety. Mr. Norris will host a daily talk show on WHFS-FM (105.7), apparently complete with a decent paycheck.

I should no longer be surprised when disgraced former public officials in our fair state manage some form of public "rehabilitation" and, like Mr. Norris, do so without expressing remorse for their misdeeds and while thumbing their noses at civic propriety. Let your imaginations wander to images of a dismissed former state senator who seems to be doing quite nicely now and who has achieved even a measure of public support.

I should no longer be surprised that business organizations and business leaders will ally themselves with such former officials and aid and abet this phony rehabilitation. After all, businesses in Maryland also have no compunction against hiring convicted felons to lobby for their interests before the General Assembly.

Not all businesses engage in such actions, but enough do to warrant concern. Are not business leaders among the first to decry the lack of law and order and to call for harsher sentences for street criminals? Where are they now when someone convicted of crimes against the public weal stands to profit from those crimes? Maybe business ethics trump civic ethics because the former means doing what is necessary to satisfy the bottom line, to make a profit, regardless of how tawdry.

I should not be surprised by any of this, but even after more than 35 years of studying and teaching about American government, I am. You should be, too.

I can't fault Mr. Norris for trying to get a job to pay the bills while he is completing his sentence. Nor can I fault him for efforts he might take to become truly rehabilitated. That is not my point. Rather, it is the way he is going about it.

A lack of remorse, no apparent acceptance of responsibility for his actions (except for serving a jail term about which he had no choice) and a willingness to trade on a notoriety gained through criminal activity is all assisted by a local business that expects to make money as a result. None of this strikes me as a sincere effort at rehabilitation. It does strike me as a cynical, if not hypocritical, use of infamy as a way to profit from that infamy.

To the best of my knowledge, no one is doing anything illegal here. But that's also beside the point. Mr. Norris and WHFS-FM are behaving in a manner that sends a seriously wrong signal - that making money from prior misdeeds is perfectly acceptable in our society.

It also tears at the very fabric of our civic culture; think of this as a principle that everyone might follow. The old rule that Caesar's wife must not only be virtuous but that she must appear to be virtuous as well applies to public servants of both genders today just as it did 2,000 years ago. It should also apply to businesses that hire former public servants.

George C. Marshall, a one-time Army chief of staff and secretary of state - one of the most honorable public servants in American history -was offered considerable sums of money to write his memoirs after he retired in the 1950s. He declined, saying that he had not spent a lifetime in public service in order to "sell the story." There is a lesson here both for those who serve honorably and for those who don't.

So I would urge WHFS-FM to consider its civic responsibility and reconsider its decision to profit from Mr. Norris' crimes against the citizens of Baltimore. I would urge Marylanders of all walks of life, but especially our business leaders, to speak out forcefully and say that something is wrong here.

I would urge Ed Norris to take responsibility for his actions, show real remorse for them and get on with his life in a way that demonstrates his seriousness, not his willingness to profit from ill-gained notoriety.

Failing this, maybe he could do as many other show business personalities do and work under a stage name.

Donald F. Norris is professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is not related to Edward T. Norris.

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