Jail official hides contaminated money in junkyard

A former high-ranking official who oversaw the state's pretrial detention centers pleaded guilty Thursday to stealing from arrestees money that had been contaminated with body fluids and burying most of it in a junkyard.

Benjamin F. Brown, 60, of Crofton, was fired in August from his position of deputy commissioner of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services' pretrial division. His responsibilities included oversight of Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Facility, the first stop for people arrested in the city.

Circuit Judge George L. Russell III gave Brown a six-month suspended sentence, put him on two years of supervised probation and ordered him to perform 300 hours of community service.

Brown's attorney, Creston P. Smith, said later that his client "was not personally enriched" and that he was merely trying to find a way to get rid of money soiled by blood and other contaminants.

The Maryland attorney general's office, which prosecuted the case, said Russell took $12,500 between June 2006 and November 2008. Prosecutors said in a statement that he buried the money "contrary to his supervisor's directives and U.S. Treasury regulations."

The prosecutors also said that Brown "admitted that on several occasions he took some of the cash for his own personal use" and then had money shifted from one account to another to cover his tracks.

But Smith said Brown took at most $800. And he said supervisors constantly debated how to dispose of the cash. "You can't take it to the bank because it's contaminated," Smith said. "Our position is that his supervisors wanted answers. He didn't have the answers, so he disposed of the money."

Mark A. Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said contaminated cash taken from detainees is supposed to be logged into a book, placed in a marked bag and stored in a secure location.

If the detainee is convicted and goes into the state prison system, then he or she gets the amount credited to a prison account. Detainees who are released get vouchers as they leave and later receive a check in the mail. Vernarelli said the contaminated money is not to be destroyed or thrown away.

Brown was hired in 2001 and rose to the rank of deputy commissioner. He was frequently quoted in the media on issues ranging from employees arrested for theft to jail overcrowding.

He was the point person in discussing a request in 2007 by former Mayor Sheila Dixon to temporarily release a man charged with a gun crime to attend his son's funeral. Brown's staff denied the request after a judge deemed the suspect too dangerous.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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