Top officials of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police have ordered officers to destroy records of the extra security the department provides to VIPs at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport - expunging the paper trail showing its armed escorts of celebrities.
Based on such documents, The Sun reported May 17 that the department had adopted a practice of routinely providing free escorts by uniformed officers to sports and entertainment stars upon request. Among those receiving such special treatment - unusual for American airports-were former Orioles stars Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray.
In a June 14 e-mail obtained by The Sun, Capt. Manuel Crew of the transportation police ordered supervisors at the airport to stop keeping a daily log of escorts.
"At the direction of the Chief there will be no mention on the Daily Report about ANY ESCORTS," the e-mail reads. "All ESCORT SHEETS once the escorts are completed will be destroyed. We will keep no records of escorts."
The order would put information about the police agency's escorts of private citizens beyond the scrutiny of the news media, the public and legislators.
In an interview Friday, Crew confirmed that he had given the order to stop keeping records, though he said he might have used the wrong words in invoking Chief Gary W. McLhinney's authority.
Crew also said the federal Transportation Security Administration had informed him that it would no longer share written notices of escorts with the state after McLhinney released many federal documents to the news media May 16.
The records McLhinney disclosed contained sensitive security information that was outside the scope of a Sun request, which sought information on escorts of private citizens only. The documents McLhinney released included the names of Secret Service agents assigned to particular details - information that agency prefers to keep secret.
"Several weeks ago, I was approached by representatives of the Transportation Security Administration advising the TSA would no longer be faxing escort sheet information to the Maryland Transportation Authority Police in lieu of the recent news articles regarding escorts at BWI," said Crew, commander of the transportation police BWI detachment.
He said he was told the TSA would now pass that information along by telephone.
Lt. Col. Russell N. Shea Jr., the state transportation police operations chief, said he found nothing odd about a federal agency declining to share escort sheets with his department.
Shea said it was the state agency's decision to stop keeping its own records of escorts, which gave details of security measures it took to protect government officials and private citizens.
Shea, who said McLhinney was unavailable for comment, emphasized that the department's policy of providing escorts to well-known private citizens had not changed.
Christopher White, a TSA spokesman, said the federal agency hadn't asked the police to stop keeping their own records.
"There's been no communication to local law enforcement about not creating any documents or records pertaining to law enforcement escorts," White said. He said the TSA has not asked the police agency to destroy any documents.
White said the TSA did request that the transportation police not release their copies of TSA records without notifying the federal agency.
"It's inappropriate for a local police agency to release TSA information," White said.
"We hope that our partners in law enforcement coordinate the release of TSA information with the TSA." White said he believed TSA's action was specific to BWI rather than part of a national change in procedure.
McLhinney has said that the state agency's officers provided escorts to well-known people long before he assumed command of the force in 2003. But according to current and former Transportation Authority officers, that practice of providing armed escorts to nongovernment celebrities did not become routine until McLhinney took over.
Officials at airports around the country contacted by The Sun said the police agencies that provide security at their facilities do not escort celebrities - even indisputable "A-list" stars - in the normal course of business. For instance, spokesmen for the airports in the hometowns of Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal said they do not routinely receive escorts.
Del. Charles E. Barkley, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Joint Audit Committee, said it is not appropriate to destroy records or to stop keeping records of escorts.
"Any time you use the public funds, you need to keep track of what you're using the public funds for," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "Maybe it's time we take a look at the whole operation and see what's going on."
Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the agency's budget, said the directive was troubling. "It's almost like they're trying to hide something," the Anne Arundel County Democrat said.
In earlier interviews, McLhinney defended the escort program as a means of keeping order at the airport. He released more than 300 pages of documents - both state and federal - in an apparent attempt to justify his decision to set up an executive protection unit in the agency.
McLhinney is a former president of the Baltimore police union who delivered that organization's endorsement to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. when the Republican was running for governor in 2002.
After Ehrlich was elected, he named McLhinney chief of the Transportation Authority Police - an agency with law enforcement authority at BWI, the port of Baltimore and state toll facilities.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan released a statement affirming his support for the records action: "I have reviewed the Chief's decision and it is based on law enforcement considerations. The decision is a police judgment within the purview of the Chief."
Barkley said the topic of a special audit of the transportation authority police escort policies could come up at his committee's July 25 meeting. He said any existing records should be preserved.