The Maryland Transportation Authority Police unit has spent more than $18,000 buying ink pens, plaques, coffee mugs and other promotional items from two companies associated with the wife of one of the agency's top officials, records show.
The state attorney general's office has started a criminal investigation of the transactions, and the police unit's No. 2 executive was put on administrative leave pending the results, transportation authority officials said yesterday.
The investigation involves merchandise bought from companies affiliated with Deborah Betkey, the wife of Vernon F. Betkey Jr. He is chief of staff to Col. Larry E. Harmel, who heads the authority's police operations.
The police unit provides security and law enforcement at toll bridges, tunnels, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the port of Baltimore.
Harmel said he put Betkey on paid leave Sept. 24 and asked the attorney general's office to investigate after questions were raised internally about purchases from vendors associated with Betkey's wife. She worked for one and was part-owner of another.
"We thought in the best interests of the authority and Mr. Betkey that we would forward it to the attorney general's office to have someone independently investigate this," Harmel said. "He was placed on leave until the questions are cleared up."
A spokeswoman for the authority said the matter was referred to the attorney general's criminal investigation division. Officials there declined to comment on the investigation.
Through his attorney, Betkey said he has done nothing wrong. Attorney Byron L. Warnken said Betkey was assured by the authority's legal adviser that it would present no problem if his wife were a part-owner or worked for a company that did business with the police unit.
Warnken said Betkey, 45, sought the advice soon after he went to work for the unit last year.
"He said he was told he was being overly cautious, that there's no problem here," Warnken said. "If he thought somebody would say this was improper, he wouldn't have done it. They felt secure once they got that OK." Transportation Authority officials said they are looking into that.
Harmel said he was aware that Betkey's wife was working for a company that was doing business with the police unit and was "under the impression that this was all aboveboard and that all the procurement policies were followed."
"I don't know that he's done anything wrong," Harmel said. "That's why we're having a third party entity looking at this rather than doing it internally here. Whatever's there is there. We're going to let the facts speak from themselves."
Most of the purchases under scrutiny were made this year from Skylight Creative Ideas, a Bel Air company at which Betkey's wife, Deborah, is a commissioned sales agent. She handled Skylight's sales to the police unit, according to state billing records.
The unit bought mugs, pens and other items to hand out at job fairs and other promotional events. It bought sweat shirts and other clothing worn by recruits in training. The police unit paid Skylight $15,305 for items in about a dozen transactions, billing records show. Each purchase was for less than $2,500.
State law does not require agencies to contact several vendors for purchases of less than that amount, but the police unit got faxed quotes from other companies in a few cases. Skylight offered the lowest price each time, the records show.
How much Deborah Betkey would have made from the sales could not be determined. She did not respond to a telephone call seeking comment. Skylight owner Robert Titelman declined to say what commission his workers receive.
Titelman said Skylight is one of the area's largest promotional-products companies and that Deborah Betkey has worked there since July 1998. He said he does not know whether Skylight did work for the Transportation Authority police before her arrival.
The police unit also bought $3,127 worth of promotional merchandise from another Bel Air company, Promotions Plus, which was partly owned by Betkey's wife. The purchases were in 1997 and last year. It was unclear whether any were made after Betkey started working for the police unit.
Lori Vidil, a Transportation Authority spokeswoman, said Betkey went on the police unit's payroll Dec. 2, 1998, but had been on loan to the agency from Maryland State Police for about six months before then. Betkey is a former state police barracks commander. He is paid $67,503 a year, Vidil said.