Crime office under probe grew rapidly

Sun Staff

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend called it a "tiny little office" being picked on by an aggressive U.S. attorney.

But the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which finds itself tangled in a federal investigation over at least one grant awarded last year, is larger and more influential than it might appear, with a rising budget and swelling staff.

The federal grant money it collects and distributes has nearly quadrupled in 10 years, from $10.5 million in 1992 to $39 million this year. The staff of 45 authorized by the state budget is supplemented by an additional 32 employees, who receive their paychecks through the University System of Maryland.

"We've really been entrepreneurial," said Stephen P. Amos, a former U.S. Department of Justice official who has been executive director for two years. "We are an agency that has more discretionary money than probably any agency in the state."

Townsend has overseen the office since its creation in 1995, when two other agencies were merged. It has become a visible platform for her crime-fighting philosophies.

Funds have flowed from the office to every corner of Maryland, from $534 for a sound system for Mountain Lake Park in Garrett County to $48,500 for police overtime in Somerset County, with Townsend frequently appearing at news conferences to announce new projects.

The lieutenant governor is now counting on the support of allies she has made during the past seven-plus years in her bid for governor. Her crime programs - from the HotSpot community safety initiative to the Police Corps law enforcement training strategy - are a cornerstone of her campaign.

The crime office made headlines last week with news that U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio is investigating a $503,000 grant to a partnership of not- for-profit agencies with ties to Prince George's County politicians.

The state office's records of a grant to the Diamonds of Opportunity program were subpoenaed, as were documents from Safe Streets Inc., a Prince George's County agency co-founded by Del. Joanne C. Benson. Safe Streets' executive director is Terry Lawlah, daughter-in-law of state Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah.

Townsend has said she is not involved in individual grants and was not pressured by Prince George's officials to provide money there. She has called the investigation "political garbage," seeing a connection between it and her likely Republican gubernatorial opponent Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a strong supporter of DiBiagio's.

The lieutenant governor called it "an amazing coincidence" that DiBiagio would "take on a tiny little office" when there are "many other challenges to be involved in."

Federal authorities have previously recognized the potential for problems in Office of Justice Programs grants, which make up the bulk of the crime office's budget. The Justice Department's Inspector General, in a December 2000 report to Congress, said the multibillion-dollar grant programs are a high risk for fraud given the amount of money involved and tens of thousands of grantees.

But Amos said Maryland grant awards follow a defined process, which typically includes public notice and reviews by advisory boards. He said he has "very, very high" confidence that grant money is well-spent.

"It is not a political slush fund," Amos said. "What the lieutenant governor is doing is bringing a vision. It is my job to implement it."

State legislative auditors and some lawmakers also have raised questions about the state office, which oversees 1,600 grants, up from 1,200 as recently as February.

"We all would really like to be more careful about the groups we give money to, but we can only go by what they tell us," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Del. John R. Leopold, an Anne Arundel County Republican whose subcommittee oversees the office's budget, said he has concerns about whether the agency's increased funding is being used to create more positions that report to the lieutenant governor rather than to improve programs.

But Leopold said he has found the agency helpful in designating a HotSpot in his district's Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. "My dealings with that office have all been positive," he said.

The office has been the subject of critical comments by the General Assembly's nonpartisan Office of Legislative Audits - most recently in November. While the audit found no corruption, it detailed several inefficiencies. According to the audit:

The GOCCP failed to request federal grant funds in a timely manner, costing the state at least $150,000 in interest income.

An automated victim-notification service administered by the office, scheduled to be up and running in November 2000, was operating at less than one-fifth of the scheduled sites seven months later. The auditors criticized the GOCCP for failing to penalize the contractor.

The office did not verify that grant recipients were spending money as intended.

Such complaints are not unusual in state audits, which focus on agencies' administrative mistakes rather than achievements.

However, Bruce A. Myers, the chief legislative auditor, said the office has been having accounting problems for years and that many of its shortcomings were identified in previous audits.

"For an agency that size, they should have been doing a better job," Myers said, adding that other agencies - including others that report to Townsend - do a much better job of managing federal funds.

Michael Sarbanes, Townsend's deputy chief of staff for policy and a former GOCCP director, acknowledged the mistakes but said there is an explanation. "There's been an enormous growth in the size and complexity of the agency and the number of grants it manages," he said. "The audit findings largely pointed out the need for an automated system, which in fact was being implemented while the audit was being completed."

Adam Gelb, a former Townsend policy adviser, said similar offices in other states have followed a standard model for decades: passing out money "to whoever asks for it."

"The Maryland office in my view made unparalleled efforts to change the way business was done - to put the money where the crime is and to hold people's feet to the fire," he said. "It's almost inconceivable that such a massive increase in funding wouldn't occur without some mistakes."

Amos concedes that potential applicants weren't informed that $9 million was available this year in federal funds from the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program. But he said he didn't need to give notice because the state's allowance was decreased, so no new money was available and only existing programs would be funded.

The office does more than distribute money, Amos said. It develops crime-fighting strategies in places such as Ocean City, where underage drinking is a problem, and in Prince George's, where Metro-station crime is on the rise. It provides technical assistance and training, and monitors programs.

"There's a lot of thinking and policy-making that goes on here," said Robert W. Weinhold Jr., the office's director of public affairs, policy and research.

Agency staff who are paid through the University System of Maryland receive money through federal funds, Amos said, not state taxpayer dollars. University settings can help attract and retain high-quality researchers, he said.

But the web of grants and payroll systems can be confusing even to employees.

"People are paid out of different funding streams," said Joseph Sviatko, a former employee who worked in communications. "I was paid out of the Police Correction Training Commission." Sviatko said he sometimes wondered about the arrangement, "but I never asked."

Leopold, the Anne Arundel delegate, said he has not seen any evidence that politics has inappropriately influenced grant awards, but he noted that elected officials often get involved as advocates for their communities. In the case of Brooklyn Heights, he said, the district's senator and other two delegates - all Democrats - joined with him to go to bat for the HotSpot designation.

Where legitimate political advocacy crosses the line into something inappropriate, he said, is "when the influence by elected officials is self-serving."

Sun staff writer Sarah Koenig contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad