Secrecy only leads to more questions

Tiny missing facts keep stories alive

May 04, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Who owns the boat aboard which a state delegate proposed to his girlfriend during a mock police raid?

Who was the mysterious woman in the former city councilman's car when he was shot?

To whom did Baltimore pay $200,000 to settle a claim against city police?

Silence breeds mistrust and conjures up conspiracy theories — all of which are in abundance when talking about Del. Jon S. Cardin's proposal, the death of former Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. and the secret six-figure settlement.

The boat's owner, the mystery woman and the payout recipient all seem minor details in complex tales already told and retold.

After all, you have enough details without the juicy names to be outraged at the misuse of power, police malfeasance and brutal violence directed at a retired lawmaker. Isn't dredging all this up just another cynical beatdown by the press to sensationalize old news?

The hidden details are all details that authorities have steadfastly refused to divulge. And while they might seem minor — and in the end they might not amount to anything — the mere fact they've remained secret this long bolsters claims, even ludicrous ones, that we haven't heard the complete stories.

Somebody must be covering up something.

Whom are authorities protecting by refusing to name of the owner of the boat the Baltimore County Democrat used to pull off a stunt that has a police sergeant in danger of being fired? Neither Cardin nor police will say.

We want to know whether any other public officials or citizens with influence were on board and why they didn't raise any alarms about how on-duty police were being used for a private affair.

We know Cardin had invited the governor to a post-raid celebration at a restaurant, wording his inquiry to the governor's scheduling office with the phrase "confidential — secret" and noting that the dinner would be "after all the funny business" and "if I can get all my ducks in a row to pull it off."

He pulled it off, but the governor couldn't make it, though the revelation didn't stop him from becoming caught up in the case. The mere fact that Cardin had extended the invitation forced the governor's spokesman into the awkard position of having to deny that the state's chief executive knew what Cardin had planned.

Why should we know the the identity of the mysterious woman in the former councilman's car the night he was killed in September 2008? Harris had stopped in a Northeast Baltimore lounge to borrow a corkscrew; he was shot after getting back into his car.

Police have said the woman is a witness and naming her would put her life in jeopardy. But not naming her has raised questions in the community and among some of Harris' relatives — including his mother — who have publicly complained that the silence infers the ex-councilman was targeted in something other than a robbery.

Unfair and ugly rumors have soared to the point of being aired at a public City Council meeting, and laying them to rest would go a long way toward ending needless debate over motive and whether police are covering up the real reason the ex-councilman was killed.

But of even more importance is finding out the identity of the person who in March received $200,000 in a secret settlement with the Baltimore Police Department. City lawyers said they want to avoid "unfair damage to the career and reputation of the plaintiff."

We don't even know whether a lawsuit was filed or threatened. The public should know what it was that its police force did to merit such a payout. And the public should know who this person is who enjoys treatment different from that of any other citizen who must go public to make a claim against the city.

Officials said they saved money by agreeing to the confidentiality terms, but even if that is so, what is stopping anyone and everyone else from trying the same strategy?

In 1997, Baltimore City tried to keep secret a $500,000 settlement with the family of a man shot to death by a police officer outside Lexington Market. The Baltimore Sun sued, and the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in the newspaper's favor in 1999.

But the court skirted the issue of whether Baltimore officials had to make settlements public by ruling that the judge had erred in sealing the court file. The appeals court ordered the file unsealed. The judges then said the next issue, whether the city had to reveal the settlement, was moot because the amount was made public in the now-unsealed court file.

In this most recent case, it's unclear whether there is even a court file to be unsealed, and the narrow ruling from 1999 doesn't help much.

Secrecy is always troubling and almost always backfires on the people trying to keep the secrets. The police sergeant may fight whatever discipline he receives in the Cardin boat case, and more information might come out. The suspects in the Harris slaying have a trial pending, and the wild stories may get a full public airing in court. And someone, at some point, might reveal who received the $200,000.

Until then, rumors will replace facts and mistrust will fester.

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