Four Baltimore County police officers suspended with pay three weeks ago as part of a federal investigation into police moonlighting at area Staples stores were ordered back to work yesterday, police officials said.
Bill Toohey, a police spokesman, said the officers' police powers remain suspended, but the four have been assigned to administrative jobs at police headquarters.
The move occurs as an FBI probe of Baltimore County and city officers who worked second jobs at Staples office supply stores has slowed because the agency is investigating the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 in New York and Washington.
"It appears now the investigation will go much longer than originally anticipated by the FBI, and we thought it would be useful to bring these officers back to work," Toohey said.
The FBI is investigating whether officers were paid for work they never performed at Staples stores, sources have 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, sources said.
Part of the investigation focuses on whether a Staples employee took more than $200,000 from the store and used it to pay police officers in cash, sources said.
Several officers told The Sun that they did not take money from the employee and that they were paid with checks. They also said they paid taxes on their income.
The federal investigation has been simmering for two years and focuses on the activities of about 40 city and several county police officers, police sources said.
On Sept. 6, 50 FBI agents fanned across the area, questioning the city officers and the four county officers at work and at their homes.
No charges have been filed.
Baltimore County Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan suspended the four county officers the same day, saying it was department policy to suspend officers who might be the targets of a federal probe.
Police union officials complained that Sheridan acted prematurely.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris did not take action against the city officers, saying he wanted more evidence that the officers did something wrong.
Toohey said county police officials hoped the investigation would be concluded within a month, but said that timetable is unrealistic because of the terrorist attacks.
Special Agent Peter A. Gulotta Jr., an FBI spokesman, refused to comment on the pace of the FBI investigation.
Gulotta said "the vast majority" of agents in the Baltimore field offices are working on terrorism-related investigations, but said some agents are working on other cases.
"Obviously, you have an investigative triage," Gulotta said. "You can't work everything so you prioritize."
Cole Weston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, which represents county officers, said he wants the four officers returned to full duty instead of administrative jobs.
"Certainly we were frustrated that the suspensions even took place in the first place," Weston said. "So we certainly feel that [Sheridan] could be in a situation to reinstate them fully."
Toohey said the four county officers were not given full police powers because "the basic reason for suspending those powers remains."