Federal raid of Baltimore City Hall 'unprecedented,' historians say, despite history of political corruption

While a few Baltimore politicians have, historically, been hauled off and convicted, local historians and researchers cannot identify a time when federal agents actually raided City Hall.

“This is unprecedented,” said Matthew Crenson, a retired Johns Hopkins political history professor and the author of “Baltimore: A Political History.”

“No, never,” Crenson said. “If there had been a raid, I’d have found it.”

Other local officials said they could not point to a similar situation to the Thursday morning forcible entry by FBI agents.

City archivist Rob Schoeberlein came to a similar conclusion. “It seems that the present City Hall raid may be unique,” he said.

In a statement, the Maryland Department staff of the Enoch Pratt Free Library said, “We can find plenty of information about various City officials being investigated for various crimes, even (in some cases) subpoenaed by the FBI, but we have not found any evidence of any searches or raids of City Hall.”

While an FBI raid at City Hall may be a first-time event, investigations of City Hall figures have been a part of Baltimore political life.

Crenson noted that in the Civil War, Mayor George Brown was arrested at his home in 1861 and sent to a prison at Fort McHenry. Brown was among officials arrested as the Union army occupied Baltimore and declared martial law. The City Council and the police commissioner were also arrested.

» In 1905 Mayor E. Clay Timanus summoned the police for a raid at City Hall Annex on six city Water Department employees for playing poker and gambling. Their stakes were a fifth of a cent per chip, The Sun reported.

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» Subpoenas were delivered to City Hall in the case of City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky in 1982. He eventually pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe from a sludge-hauling firm. He took $2,532 in an envelope from an FBI informant at the Trattoria Petrucci in Little Italy and later accepted bribe money at the coffee shop of the Hotel Belvedere. When he stepped down from his office in October 1982, his City Council colleagues applauded the popular politician as he left the City Council chambers.

» In 1994 Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean pleaded guilty to “scheming to misappropriate more than $25,000 in public funds by hiring a fictitious employee [at her City Hall office] and a phony research group.” The Sun’s account also said, “She also admitted that the money went to pay off her credit card bills, business debts, mobile phone charges and even for hardwood floors for her condominium.”

Investigators from the Office of the State Prosecutor conducted a search of the comptroller’s City Hall offices as part of the McClean investigation. James Cabezas, a retired investigator at the Office of the State Prosecutor, recounted the episode in his memoir Eyes of Justice. The judge who read the affidavit justifying the search said, according to Cabezas’s account, “This reads like a novel.”

Cabezas wrote that he got a key to the office from the director of public works. The investigators arrived at City Hall late in the evening during the 1993 Christmas holidays.

The office had been mostly cleaned out by that point, Cabezas wrote, but investigators took an appointment book and five telephone message books that were inside a red attaché case.

» Mayor Sheila Dixon’s home in the Hunting Ridge section of Southwest Baltimore was raided by Maryland state prosecutors in 2008. They carried away boxes of evidence before a jury convicted her on one misdemeanor count of fraudulent misappropriation. Testimony at her trial centered on charges that she misappropriated gift cards intended for the poor. In a plea agreement, Dixon received probation with a provision she resign as mayor.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

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