For 'Crime' Of Blowing The Whistle, He Needs A Pardon

GETTING THERE

July 20, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Michael.Dresser@baltsun.com

It was a day in late spring 2005 when I first met George Tarburton.

The Maryland Transportation Authority police officer showed up without notice in the lobby of The Baltimore Sun. An editor asked me to go downstairs and talk with him. He was a thin, intense man with a lot on his mind.

Tarburton, who was assigned to the detail that protects the port of Baltimore, was worried that the security at the marine terminals was riddled with holes that made it vulnerable to attack. He wanted to talk with somebody, anybody who could bring the problem to the attention of the public and the people who make decisions in this state. He didn't think he could do that by going through channels because he had come to distrust the top management of a police force headed by a chief whose primary qualification was his delivery of a union endorsement to the governor at the time.

As I listened to Tarburton, I came to sense that this was a man who was not settling scores or seeking publicity. He was genuinely concerned, and he was willing to do what it took to prove his case - showing me the security gaps, the faulty equipment, the gaping vulnerabilities in port security. He introduced me to fellow officers who confirmed his accounts. I never heard him utter a word that was untrue.

One of the things he pointed out was the wooden dummy security camera that was posted along the fence of the Dundalk Marine Terminal. A photo of that camera became the visual symbol of the laxity of the port's defenses. I'm sure that picture is much better remembered than the July 2005 article by Greg Barrett and me that exposed the multiple failings in port security.

That article could not have been written without George Tarburton, but his name appeared nowhere in it. I agreed to protect his confidentiality and those of several other officers as my sources.

The article sent shock waves through the port, state government and, most of all, the Maryland Transportation Authority police. It was a public embarrassment for its chief, a former city police union official named Gary McLhinney. He vowed to do whatever it took to root out the people who blew the whistle on his department.

McLhinney, who has since moved on, won. Tarburton lost. Somebody Tarburton unwisely took into his confidence fingered him, and his 16-year career with the transportation police was effectively over. He would eventually resign to avoid being fired. He never gave up the names of the other officers who talked.

Tarburton is now working in private security. It puts food on the table, but the pay and benefits are far less than he received on the police force. He'd like to return to law enforcement - at least long enough to qualify for a pension. He says his whistle-blowing days are over. But at every police agency where he applies for a job, the answer is the same: No. He's come to the conclusion that he's been blacklisted.

Recently his mother, whom he supports, noticed an article about several pardons granted by Gov. Martin O'Malley. Beatrice Tarburton wondered why offenders could get a break but her son could not.

"He did not break any laws. In fact he kept the law, became a whistle-blower and if the truth was told, he most likely even saved lives," she wrote. "When did we start rewarding people breaking the law and punishing the people who keep and protect the law?"

Unlike Mrs. Tarburton, I see no reason to question the governor's use of the pardon power. It's there for a reason. But her point about her son is well taken. Why can't there be a measure of forgiveness for a man who went out on a limb to protect his fellow Marylanders?

The years after Tarburton spoke out brought a dramatic improvement in port security. In its most recent assessment, the Coast Guard described the measures taken to protect Maryland's marine terminals as "near perfect." In January, O'Malley held a news conference in which he praised the improvements and characterized the former state of affairs as a "Mickey Mouse operation with sleeping guards and wooden decoy cameras."

As my colleague Dan Rodricks has pointed out several times, the governor is in a position now where he could help the man who helped put the port on a safer footing. But so far he's done nothing.

Maybe George Tarburton can't go back to his old job. Maybe there are too many high-level people in the transportation police who feel they can't work with him. But the governor could at least direct that Tarburton not be blackballed when he seeks work in other police agencies. Think of it as a professional pardon for a cop who's shown he'd take a bullet to protect those he's sworn to protect.

In a sense, he already has.

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