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Union Dues

Did Fop Members Campaign for Ehrlich While on the Clock?

By Terrie Snyder | Posted 11/20/2002

In October, while most people were obsessed with the snipers terrorizing the state, the vicious arson murders of the seven members of the Dawson family also grabbed national headlines. ABC's Nightline even devoted a full half-hour to the family's deaths. But at a time when violent death in Baltimore once again became the focus of national attention, some Baltimore police officers were focused on something entirely different: politics.

Gary McLhinney, the president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police union, not only loudly endorsed the candidacy of Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich, he put the taxpayers' money where his mouth is. For 29 of the workdays between Sept. 30 and Nov. 8, McLhinney--with the agreement of police brass--had one of the Homicide Unit's two shift commanders, Lt. Errol Etting, "detailed" to the FOP. Etting spent the time working for Ehrlich's campaign for governor.

That would seem to violate three separate sections of Maryland law, including the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, which prohibits government employees from working in partisan political campaigns during working hours. It is also a direct violation of the city's contract with the FOP, which spells out how those "detail" days may be used.

McLhinney claims that police officers aren't covered by any state personnel laws except for the police officers' bill of rights. The provisions of the bill of rights, in fact, cover only how police officers can be disciplined, with a single exception: a police officer can not participate in political activity "when he is on duty or when he is acting in his official capacity."

McLhinney acknowledges that Etting worked for the Ehrlich campaign during the detail. He says that Etting has been the chairman of the FOP's legislative committee for the past three years, and that his work for Ehrlich was connected with his FOP committee position. Daniel O'Connor, head of human resources for the police department, echoes McLhinney, using the exact same words to describe the reason his office granted the request for Etting's detail. "Etting is chairman of the FOP's legislative committee," says O'Connor, "and he has been for the last three years."

The FOP's contract with the city allows the union to have 600 "detail" days each year--days when officers are paid by the city but assigned to the FOP to work for the union. "'On duty' means working as a police officer," McLhinney says. "Clearly they're working for the union at that time." But the city's contract with the FOP spells out precisely what officers can do during those detail days, stating that officers can be detailed "to attend scheduled conferences, seminars, board and committee meetings and conventions." It makes no allowance for officers to work in partisan political campaigns.

Another section of Maryland law states that "[a]n employee of a local entity may not . . . engage in political activity while on the job during working hours." Violation of that section of the law is a misdemeanor crime punishable by as much as six months in jail and/or a $3,000 fine.

Etting could be easily spotted walking almost directly behind Ehrlich during various campaign appearances. He was also onstage with Ehrlich as the Republican nominee declared victory on election night. Etting, however, was not the only officer assigned to the FOP on Election Day. Fourteen other members of the department were detailed to the union on Nov. 5--sources allege to hand out Ehrlich campaign literature at the polls.

Although the department was asked by City Paper about Etting's detail on Oct. 31, it took until Nov. 11--six days after the election--to get any response from a department official to questions about whether Etting or any other officers had been detailed to work for the campaign on Election Day.

On Nov. 11, Daniel O'Connor called City Paper and contended that until that date, he was unaware that Etting might have been doing something other than conducting FOP business--even though Etting was clearly visible in videotapes of Ehrlich campaign appearances.

"He wasn't clearly visible to me," O'Connor said.

"Do you know what he looks like?"

"No," O'Connor replied.

During the Nov. 11 telephone conversation, O'Connor, whose office approves all FOP requests for officers to be detailed to the union, also said that, to the best of his knowledge, no members of the FOP aside from Etting were detailed for Election Day. However, on Nov. 14, a police spokesperson confirmed that 14 other officers had been detailed for Election Day.

When O'Connor was asked whether his office was going to look into the situation, he said he wasn't aware of any contention over officers working for the campaign, despite previous assurances to City Paper that he would call back with answers to such questions on Nov. 6. "I didn't keep track of every conversation I had," he said, adding that the post-it memos he wrote to himself were "very vague." When asked whether he would investigate, he said, "I'll have a conversation with Gary McLhinney when I see him. . . . Currently I'm unaware of any violation."

In a Nov. 15 interview, police Commissioner Edward Norris said he was aware of Etting's detail work for the Ehrlich campaign. Echoing McLhinney and O'Connor, Norris attributed the detail to Etting's chairmanship of the FOP's legislative committee. Norris also said he had no knowledge that the officers detailed to the FOP on Election Day were electioneering at the polls.

Paul Shurick, communications director for the Ehrlich campaign, says he was unaware that Etting was being paid by the city during the time he was working on the campaign.

Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, whose office investigates election violations, will not comment on the specifics of the FOP's actions in the Ehrlich campaign except to say that "the matter is under consideration by me." Montanarelli says that typically his office starts an investigation either from a direct complaint or a media report.

While Norris says he doesn't believe that officers did anything wrong, he says the department will "comply with the findings" if Montanarelli finds there was any substantive problem.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy's office also deals with election violations. However, her spokesperson Margaret Burns says, "We absolutely do not investigate any allegations that come out in the media. Therefore, we won't comment at all."

The appearance of uniformed city police officers in TV commercials for the campaigns of both Ehrlich and incumbent Attorney General Joseph Curran, a Democrat, has sparked a change in the department's regulations regarding political activity. Sources say there were numerous complaints made to the department about officers appearing in partisan political ads, giving the impression that the department was officially endorsing a candidate.

On Nov. 11, Norris issued a memorandum revoking permission for officers to appear in uniform to show support for any political candidate or activity, either on duty or on their own time. Norris says he made the change "because there was so much controversy about the officers appearing in uniform."

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