Five Baltimore County police officers were suspended yesterday and federal authorities were seeking to question about 40 Baltimore officers as a long-simmering investigation of police moonlighting accelerated, police and union sources say.
FBI agents are believed to be asking officers whether they were paid for work they never performed at Staples office supply stores, the sources said. Agents are also looking into whether the officers may have been double-dipping - working security at Staples stores during the past few years while on duty as police, sources said.
Starting about 7 a.m., FBI agents fanned out across the area to question city police at their homes and at work, sources said. Agents also called officers to schedule interviews.
Baltimore County police suspended five officers with pay after FBI agents interviewed the officers yesterday, sources said. The officers' identities were not disclosed.
A county police spokesman would not comment on the suspensions but said that as a matter of practice, the department would take that step when officers are being investigated by the FBI.
Yesterday's actions were the first outward signs of the investigation, which surfaced earlier this year when Staples issued a two-sentence statement saying it was "cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation."
For the past few months, federal agents have been examining the officers' payroll records, sources said. No one has been charged in the case, and it is unclear whether the federal investigation is nearing a conclusion.
The moonlighting involved stores in the Baltimore area and in Washington, sources said.
The FBI and Baltimore police declined to comment yesterday.
Lawyers for the police union described the investigation as "wide-ranging."
"A number of officers have been contacted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation today to be interviewed," said Michael E. Davey, an attorney who represents Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 3, the Baltimore police union. "They are on a fact-finding mission.
"We've never seen anything like this," he said. "You just don't get this many people contacted in one day to be interviewed. ... Anytime the FBI is investigating police offi- cers, we're obviously concerned."
Sources said most of the city police under investigation are patrol officers and detectives, but include at least one commander, a major. Their identities could not be determined yesterday.
The Baltimore County officers are described as rank-and-file officers assigned to various units.
In Baltimore County, Michael Marshall, a lawyer for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, the union representing county officers, said he was awaiting information on the suspensions.
"There is an FBI investigation involving something that has to deal with Staples, but beyond that I have not spoken to the [suspended] officers about anything substantively," Marshall said.
Baltimore police spokesman Kevin Enright referred all questions to the FBI yesterday.
Bill Toohey, the Baltimore County police spokesman, would neither confirm nor deny the suspensions and referred questions about the investigation to the FBI.
"The number of people, the positions they hold, their particular status in general terms is not for us to discuss," Toohey said. "Typically, if someone is under investigation as part of a federal probe, that person will be suspended with pay until the investigation is complete."
It is unclear whether Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris intends to suspend any officers.
Gary McLhinney, president of the local representing Baltimore police, said: "I am declining to comment until we know specific allegations against specific officers."
A spokesman for Staples said yesterday that the company "is cooperating with the investigation, and it's not our policy to comment on ongoing investigations."