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Charitable donations to Baltimore police lack oversight, transparency

The secrecy of the surveillance program added to the anger among city leaders, acoording to reporter Doug Donovan. (Emma Patti Harris/Baltimore Sun video)

The Baltimore Police Foundation for years covered the cost of equipment and initiatives that the city's tight budget couldn't cover. It had an executive director, a board of directors and a police commissioner committed to personally raising funds.

But the integrity of the charity crumbled when former Commissioner Edward T. Norris was caught and sent to prison in 2004 for misspending donations made to another police account meant to provide money for the needy.

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Charitable donations to police continued to flow, however, to two funds at the Baltimore Community Foundation. Only these funds wouldn't have the independent oversight of a board and wouldn't be required to publicly disclose donations or spending.

That arrangement allowed the Baltimore Police Department to conduct an aerial surveillance program for more than six months without telling residents that a plane overhead was recording their movements.

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Among more than two dozen donations to one of the funds, mostly for community outreach events such as youth mentoring programs, a Texas billionaire gave tens of thousands of dollars "to purchase community support program wide area imagery system surveillance," according to documents provided to The Baltimore Sun by the community foundation.

The murky donation process fueled anger over the secrecy surrounding the initiative, which became public last week and will be examined during City Council hearings. The fallout not only led to more national scrutiny of a beleaguered police department, it threatens to sully the reputation of the Baltimore Community Foundation, whose $25 million in direct investments in a range of charitable causes has now been overshadowed by a single $120,000 gift.

The Baltimore Community Foundation's role is to make sure that all gifts to police abide by tax rules, but it does not manage the spending. It essentially serves to pass along gifts, and foundation officials said they didn't fully understand how the donation would be used.

It is not uncommon to use a community foundation to handle such gifts, said Pamela Delaney, co-founder of the National Police Foundations Network. But she and other experts said it is not the best way for a police department to raise money.

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"Transparency is critical for police foundations," Delaney said. "There's always fear of corruption, and an organization that has police in its name has to be particularly careful."

Most big city police departments ensure that such gift giving is conducted publicly. More than 300 departments have formal foundations with boards of directors and public reporting requirements, Delaney said.

In Boston and St. Louis this summer, the charitable arms of those police agencies purchased ice cream trucks for community outreach. Over the years, the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation has donated horses for mounted patrols, dogs for canine units and a bomb squad robot.

Delaney ran the New York City Police Foundation, considered one of the first such entities in the nation, for 25 years. She remembers the demise of the Baltimore Police Foundation.

"There's a confidence problem created from that incident all those years ago," Delaney said.

Rather than create a new Baltimore foundation, former Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld helped to revive a dormant police fund at the Baltimore Community Foundation to help cover the cost of police initiatives in a city that remained strapped. Another fund had been created when the Abell Foundation wanted to make a gift to the Police Department for a project.

Officials with the Baltimore Community Foundation have vowed to improve their scrutiny of donations to the two funds. Only one of the funds has an adviser designated by the Police Department.

Police officials have defended the aerial surveillance, describing it as an extension of the city's extensive CitiWatch system of cameras on the ground. Officials have also said there was no need to go public with the plane surveillance, which covers 32 square miles and allows analysts to go back in time and track the movement of individuals and vehicles.

Police didn't respond to questions about the funds.

In neighboring Baltimore County, donations are handled differently.

Baltimore County Police Foundation Treasurer David E. Mosier said the county's fund, which was started four decades ago, has a board of directors and officers including executives from the companies that provide the sponsorships that make up the bulk of its charitable gifts.

"You want to be looked at with the highest esteem," Mosier said. "Not having a board that would want to work with the foundation is risky in my opinion. What happened in the city is a real sign of that."

Forming a nonprofit entity, hosting a website, producing tax records and listing gifts is key to building trust with donors, Mosier said. The Baltimore County foundation primarily pays for an annual awards banquet for officers.

But the foundation, which has about $300,000 in assets, does donate other items when it has extra money. It bought Segways for patrol officers in Towson and a high-tech microscope for bullet analysis, Mosier said.

Its public oversight is substantial.

"Any donation over $5,000 has to be approved by the Baltimore County Council. And the county administrative officer reviews donations under $5,000," said Mosier, vice president of operations for the payroll company BenefitMall. "All grants and funds that we provide all go through the county's budget process. Nothing gets spent without all members being involved in the vetting process."

In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the City Council were not notified of the aerial surveillance program that began in January. The mayor said she only "recently" learned about it.

The company that conducted the program, Persistent Surveillance Systems of Dayton, Ohio, reached out to Baltimore police about its services last year, said Ross McNutt, the company's owner. McNutt said Houston philanthropist John Arnold had contacted him and promised funding if he could find a willing city.

Once Baltimore police and McNutt agreed to a trial run of the technology, Arnold and his wife, Laura, gave $120,000 in November to a police fund that the Baltimore Community Foundation manages.

Then in April, the Arnolds approached the foundation again and asked if it would handle a second gift to Baltimore police for $240,000. But the Arnolds had one stipulation — the community foundation would have to undertake an evaluation of the surveillance effort. The Arnolds wanted to know its effectiveness in crime fighting.

Baltimore Community Foundation President Thomas E. Wilcox declined the deal because he did not have the staff to handle such an analysis. Wilcox says, however, that he did not know that the surveillance program had not been vetted by city government. He has apologized for not being better-informed.

Concerns about the secrecy of the program have reflected on the community foundation, he said, noting that the funds weren't "discretionary dollars" that the foundation chooses how to spend.

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"People have indicated that they would like to know more," Wilcox said. "I think there has been some misunderstanding."

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After Wilcox's organization declined the donation, the Arnolds gave the money to the Police Foundation in Washington, which plans to produce an evaluation of the surveillance by the end of next month. The couple has defended the donation, saying that "as a society, we should seek to understand whether these technologies yield significant benefits, while carefully weighing any such benefits against corresponding tradeoffs to privacy."

Since the beginning of 2015, the "special projects" police fund that paid for the surveillance with the Arnolds' donation has received 26 contributions for a total of $298,624, according to records provided by the Baltimore Community Foundation.

The money has financed expenses as small as $43 to reimburse a woman for refreshments at a youth mentoring program and as large as $129,600 for Ti Training LE, which conducts use-of-force training.

The Police Department has not designated a special adviser to monitor grants for that fund, Wilcox said.

The second fund at the foundation, called Police Foundation Fund, has received $116,000 in gifts since 2014. The donations are only being used to renovate police stations.

That fund has two advisers: Wells Fargo regional president Andrew Bertamini and local philanthropist and former mayoral candidate David Warnock. Previous advisers include A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard, a former CIA executive, and developer Jack Luetkemeyer.

None of them could be reached for comment.

The Goldseker Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit, made a $40,000 donation for station renovations. Matthew D. Gallagher, president of the Goldseker Foundation and a community foundation board member, said the fund supports initiatives that donors want.

"It could be training or T-shirts or trophies," said Gallagher, a former high-ranking city and state government official. "It depends on the donor's interest. Many public agencies are resource-constrained. They want to be in a position that they can accept this type of external support. Generally it's a good thing when you see government being entrepreneurial to identify these resources and bring them to bear on public issues."

Bealefeld, who declined to comment for this article, championed the use of the Police Foundation Fund that has focused on a range of endeavors over the years.

Between 2011 and 2013, the fund logged donations totaling just over $900,000, according to records from the community foundation. In 2011 Under Armour donated $300,000 for the Southern Police District to buy desktop computers, Tasers and other items. In 2012, another donation covered the material and labor costs "to install two wireless cameras at 2800 Riggs and 1100 Braddish streets and five locations on Greenmount Avenue."

The aerial surveillance grant to the other fund was described in the foundation records provided to The Sun as being used "to purchase community support program wide area imagery system surveillance for city of Baltimore for Jan. 2016."

"I don't think there is anything in that title that would have lead anyone to think that there was something untoward," said Laura L. Gamble, chairwoman of the community foundation's board of trustees. "There is a certain level of reliance on the public entity to follow their policies and procedures."

Ultimately, experts said, it is the responsibility of the Police Department to make sure that such grants adhere to its policies and procedures. Police departments undermine their ability to raise donations if they appear to have no oversight, and they cannot afford to lose such gifts, experts said.

"Across the nation, municipalities just do not have sufficient funds to adequately support their first responders," said Melanie A. Talia, CEO of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation. "Foundations can be a great way to provide that support. It's a great vehicle for citizens and businesses to make contributions."

Foundations should have a plan to educate donors and the public about their work, according to report Delaney wrote in 2014 for the Department of Justice's Community Oriented Policing Services.

"A foundation will occasionally face potential negative publicity," the report states. "Sometimes a foundation may be drawn into a battle not of its own making and used in a political conflict between public officials and the police executive, the community, or its police department. Other times its own missteps can lead a foundation to negative publicity and public criticism."

Without a point person to handle criticism about the surveillance grant, the Police Department, City Hall and the community foundation scrambled separately to issue responses.

As Wilcox said about the aerial program: "The whole thing came as a surprise to us."

"It didn't even need to be secret. We have neighborhoods who say can you provide as much surveillance as possible."

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