When police burst into a city transportation building last March and arrested nearly a dozen workers who they said were throwing dice and drinking cheap liquor, the raid grabbed headlines and triggered stern warnings from officials about "violations of the public trust."
But nearly a year later, the case has ended with prosecutors convicting just one person and dropping charges against all the others.
Seven workers whose criminal cases were not pursued have returned to their old jobs. Union officials say the city is appealing decisions by a civil service board to reinstate three others who won their cases at disciplinary hearings.
The employee who pleaded guilty to illegal gambling was fired, along with a supervisor who was not arrested but who police said had a nearly empty 12-pack of beer in his office refrigerator and an empty Bud Ice can in the trash can next to his desk.
But some of those arrested in the raid, at a transportation maintenance yard on East Madison Street, maintain they were innocent bystanders. Their continued unemployment, they say, is a lingering aftershock from what they call an overzealous and failed effort to root out corruption.
"It's like a bad dream," said David DeCarlo, who had worked for the city for nine years, first fixing parking meters and most recently building wooden stages for parade routes and festivals. He remains out of work, though he said he was eating chicken, not gambling, at the time of the raid.
"I'm suffering and my kids are suffering," said DeCarlo, who lives in his mother-in-law's house in Curtis Bay and lost a new apartment he and his family were about to move into before his arrest. "They probably had the worst Christmas they ever had."
The city state's attorney's office said some defendants accepted community service in exchange for charges being dropped. Spokesman Mark Cheshire said that "in some cases, we had insufficient evidence to proceed."
Baltimore Inspector General David McClintock, whose agents led the raid on a Friday afternoon, defended the police action and said he's not surprised that people are complaining. His job as the city's watchdog on fraud and abuse is to disrupt routines, he said, even illegal activities long accepted or ignored.
Regardless of how many people were convicted, McClintock said Monday, if gambling "was going on and it's not anymore, then it was worth it. … The day everybody is happy with what we're doing is the day we're not doing something right."
McClintock would not discuss specifics of the case but said a public report on the raid should be released in about five weeks.
"I think the whole thing was blown out of proportion," said Brandon Mead, who represented one of the men arrested. Prosecutors, he said, "didn't have anything, so they had to get rid of the charges. That's what justice desired."
He said his client, Franklin Fisher, was outside the transportation yard's break room when agents with the Inspector General's Office burst in. Mead said Fisher is one of the workers who got his job back.
The only employee convicted was Michael Flowers, 50, who pleaded guilty to one count of gaming and one count of assault on a police officer. He was given a seven-year suspended sentence and five years' probation. He now works for a private company, according to his lawyer.
Glen Middleton, who runs Local 44 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said supervisors had routinely looked the other way at payday office parties. The workers said they were having a cookout on the day of the raid. That cookout, according to police, included a craps game, bottles of Remy Champagne Cognac, Wild Irish Rose fortified wine and Bud Ice.
"Did authorities have to go to the extreme with using the police?" Middleton said, suggesting that administrative sanctions might have sufficed. "They treated this like a major drug bust, like these guys were running a criminal enterprise."
Middleton said whatever the workers were doing "pales in comparison to other things going on in the city. We're not saying that our members or city employees should be gambling, but the city made a huge mistake here. It's too late for these folks. They've lost a lot."
City officials point out that standards for returning to work are different from the burden prosecutors must meet to pursue criminal charges.
Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, declined to discuss the case beyond a statement saying that officials "reviewed each case on an individual basis. The determination and outcome of each employee was based on an internal investigation and decisions made by DOT officials. Because this is a personnel matter, we cannot comment any further on the specifics."
A Baltimore police officer assigned to the vice unit wrote the charging document filed in court, but the investigation was led by the Inspector General's Office.
Reports filed in court show that agents Scott Borden and Natalie Assad acted on an anonymous complaint when they went into the transportation department's special events building — which has since moved — and converged on the break room.
Assad said in court documents that she heard a male voice counting to three in Spanish and then went in and saw 11 people in a semicircle, bent over the floor, with a "large pile" of money in the center. She wrote she saw Flowers "make a tossing motion and tossed several small objects of what she believed to be dice to the floor."
"The activity is indicative of a street craps game," the charging document states.
Assad said in the documents that Flowers and others grabbed money as agents went inside. She then said that Flowers "forcefully shoved and grabbed" her while she was standing near the door, "in an attempt to flee." In the charging document filed in court, the city officer wrote: "Agent Assad did not sustain any injury as a result of [Flowers'] attempt to flee the scene."
Assad said in the report that police seized three sets of different-colored dice and $239 from the pile on the floor. A total of $6,339 was seized from the floor and the suspect's pockets, according to a police report. Authorities said some money was put in a circle around the Remy cognac bottle.
A subsequent report filed by the inspector general, used in civil service hearings, describes a far more chaotic scene, with at least one employee escaping by climbing through an opening in the room's drop ceiling and Flowers pushing Assad so hard that the door to the room broke. The report says three employees locked themselves in a carpentry shop to try to escape detection.
Defense attorneys called this account exaggerated. Flowers' attorney, James Rhodes, said his client pleaded guilty "because he didn't want to risk a trial and going to jail." He said Flowers brushed up against an agent while trying to open a bathroom door,
"That was the assault," Rhodes said. "He touched her. … This whole thing was ridiculous. My client had worked 18 years for the city, and all of it came to an end because police spent thousands of dollars to see if someone was rolling dice."
DeCarlo, who is still fighting for his job, said work was slow on the day of the raid because of an impending move to Lombard Street. Most of the material and tools had already been relocated.
Shortly after 11 a.m., he said, he was paid — $837.34 — and took his lunch hour to cash the check at a nearby bank. He withdrew an additional $300 from his account. He said he bought soda and a sandwich and returned to the carpentry shop.
DeCarlo said he decided to contribute $5 to the cookout and was eating in the break room when investigators came in on the raid. "I was concentrating on eating my chicken," he said. "I didn't see what was going on in the middle of the floor. I could see Flowers on his knees, and there was a pile of money. There was dice on the floor."
But DeCarlo said he and another bystander, who was eating a cheeseburger, were arrested along with everyone else. "Everybody in that room went to jail," he said. DeCarlo said police seized his money, which he said was in his pocket — $1,137, minus the few dollars he had spent on food.
"That proves I didn't have any money in the game," he said, adding that most people in the room had also cashed their paychecks, accounting for the large amount of money seized by police.
DeCarlo's money has been returned; it was unclear whether the other workers have had their money returned.
While his charges were pending, DeCarlo said he moved from the transportation department to the quasi-public Parking Authority. But he said the authority suspended him when his criminal case was delayed and then told him he had to resign from the city before coming back. He did that but said he was told by the authority that there were no more openings.
The authority did not respond to a request for comment.
"They told me I had to resign from the city to work for parking, and then parking suspended me because my case wasn't over," DeCarlo said. "Now that it's over, transportation is saying I quit, and the people in parking say they don't have room for me. I still can't go back to work. I'm still fighting it."
Middleton, the union representative, said DeCarlo may have no other options. He said the city has refused to rescind the resignation. Meanwhile, a third job DeCarlo had, with the private company that owns the city's parking meters, is also on hold until he can have his criminal case expunged.
"Somebody has got to pay for this," DeCarlo said.