City solicitor: Baltimore will improve vetting of candidates after police chief Darryl De Sousa's suspension

Former Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley had churned through three police commissioners in five years before finding stability with Leonard Hamm. After firing Commissioner Kevin Clark in 2004 over domestic-abuse allegations, O’Malley needed a veteran like Hamm to steady the police department.

Still, the mayor wasn’t taking any chances on the 20-year veteran.

“He hired an independent investigator to investigate me and my background,” said Hamm, police commissioner from November 2004 until 2007. “Mayor O’Malley had been bitten before and he wasn’t going to let that happen again.”

It’s a lesson that is resonating with Mayor Catherine E. Pugh’s administration in the wake of embarrassing revelations about her new police commissioner, Darryl De Sousa.

The mayor suspended De Sousa with pay last week after federal prosecutors charged him with failing to file his tax returns for 2013, 2014 and 2015 — information that many say should have been detected when Pugh appointed De Sousa in January and during the City Council’s confirmation hearings in February.

“One of the lessons that we’ve learned clearly is that Baltimore City and this administration needs to be bit more invasive in examining candidates for high level, highly responsible positions,” said City Solicitor Andre Davis, city government’s top lawyer. “We’re going to ask more questions, more pointed questions, more focused questions and we're going to broaden the areas into which we make inquiry.”

Since De Sousa was charged last Thursday with the criminal tax charges, Pugh administration officials have not said whether their process for vetting De Sousa included steps such as hiring private investigators and using lie detector tests. Those are precautions that some say are necessary to make sure top officials avoid embarrassing revelations that could jeopardize public trust in their agencies’ missions.

Two other Pugh officials recently resigned after questions were raised about their backgrounds. In March, Pugh’s spokesman Darryl Strange quit just hours after being introduced at City Hall when The Baltimore Sun inquired about three lawsuits filed against him when he was a police officer. Earlier this month, the city’s new deputy civil rights director, Charles G. Byrd Jr., resigned after The Sun inquired about his disbarment as an attorney last year.

Davis said Monday that the administration is revamping the way it conducts background investigations of top appointments.

The allegations against De Sousa “brought matters into focus in a way that made it very clear that we need to up our game,” Davis said.

Davis said a team of senior staff members will manage appointments and better document the vetting process. Davis said he was not involved in vetting De Sousa and did not know what steps were taken to examine his background. The mayor has previously said she reviewed his internal affairs records as part of the process.

Future candidates will be asked whether they paid their taxes, he added. But he wouldn’t say if the city would ask whether candidates had filed returns.

De Sousa, a 30-year veteran with the department, was suspended with pay after the Maryland U.S. attorney’s office charged him last week with three criminal tax violations. The federal prosecutor alleges he willfully failed to file the returns. Deputy Commissioner Gary Tuggle will oversee the department during De Sousa’s absence.

The charges carry a maximum penalty of a year in prison and $75,000 in fines. De Sousa said last week on Twitter that his “only explanation” for not filing federal or state taxes in those years was a failure to “sufficiently prioritize” his personal affairs.

City Council President Bernard C. Jack Young said Monday he had no comment on De Sousa. And council members did not discuss his suspension at their Monday lunch in City Hall before their evening meeting.

But two state lawmakers who represent Baltimore have said De Sousa should step down if he cannot quickly remedy the charges.

Del. Luke H. Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who works as an assistant state’s attorney in Anne Arundel County, said it is “a problem” if De Sousa was not properly vetted, but “a much bigger problem that he didn’t reveal this issue himself before he was” appointed as the city’s top cop in January.

Hamm, who is now public safety director at Coppin State University, said he was amazed at how far investigators dug into his background when he was candidate to be commissioner, talking to supporters and detractors, colleagues and social friends.

“I think the investigator might have talked to my third grade teacher,” Hamm said.

Hamm did go out of his way to alert O’Malley to a specific personal tragedy involving his daughter — a drug addict who was later killed in Baltimore.

“I did that — not because I was ashamed of my daughter. I loved her dearly. I didn’t like what she was doing — but because I didn’t want to put him in the position of saying, ‘I didn’t know that,’ ” Hamm said.

Matthew D. Gallagher, a senior aid to O’Malley when he was governor and mayor, said the most important decisions chief executives make are on hiring senior personnel who represent administration policies to the public.

O’Malley used an assortment of tools to evaluate candidates, including outside investigative firms that conducted background checks, said Gallagher, CEO of the Goldseker Foundation.

From there, the mayor or his team would interview the applicants.

“You need to spend a lot of time talking to candidates, asking questions,” Gallagher said.

The process should be the same for internal and external candidates.

“You have to resist the temptation to rely on your experience” with internal candidates, he added. “Check references, go off of the reference lists. Broaden the circle.”

Relying on an internal candidate’s experience and reputation on the job can lead an administration to miss key aspects of a candidate's background, he said.

“It doesn’t negate the responsibility to make sure they fill the requirements of the job, whether it’s technical experience or residency,” Gallagher said. “You have to be mindful of that.”

Gallagher said one of the most important questions to ask job candidates is, “Is there anything we haven’t asked you about?”

Jim Doherty, a legal consultant with the Seattle-based nonprofit Municipal Research and Services Center, agreed. He said some states require additional vetting for law enforcement officials, including background checks and polygraph tests. But sometimes the most critical inquiry is asking candidates whether they may have any state or federal law violations.

“The higher up the position, the more important it is to do a background check,” Doherty said. “I would certainly think in law enforcement, it is crucial that you know the people are squeaky clean.”

Still, Doherty said a thorough vetting is no guarantee.

“Some of this stuff, there is no way you’d know about it,” Doherty said. “You’re just going to get blindsided some times.”

Hamm said Pugh was right to suspend De Sousa, whom he called a “personal friend and a protege.” The charges against De Sousa have not diminished Hamm’s confidence in the suspended commissioner.

“This will give him some time to work on some things personally in his life,” Hamm said. “He will survive this and we will be OK.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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