Friday, February 24, 2006

Goodbye, Dr. Shannon, hello grand jury

By Mark Dorroh

Dorothea Shannon, Ph.D., the Prince George County superintendent of schools is finishing up her last weeks of service to the county.

On her watch, county schools, while staying resolutely within the lowest sixth of per-pupil expenditures of all school districts in the commonwealth, became accredited in far less time than many districts with proportionally larger budgets. The county's dropout rate is low and a high percentage of graduates go on to pursue higher education, careers in the military and well-paying jobs. It would seem the gentle Dr. Shannon has done an exemplary job.

Be that as it may, Shannon is not being handed a golden parachute on her way out. Far from it. In fact, two school board members, Peter Iaricci and Cindy Blanks, think she's getting a pretty raw deal.

It seems Shannon, the cheerful, workaholic career educator who seldom if ever took an unscheduled day off, has stacked up rather a lot of personal leave and sick days over the years. Upon her retirement, Blanks and Iaricci assumed she would be given the option of either working out her contract and taking the back pay or taking the accumulated days off and leaving office early.

That assumption ran up against the express wishes of the other three board members who didn't see the point in handing Shannon an additional $25,000 and change as a reward for her spotless attendance record.

Chairman Robert Cox, Vice Chairman Kenneth Parr and Member Hugh Mumford decided the schools could get along without Shannon over the period of her accumulated leave time, and so voted to deny her the option.

Shannon refuses to say publicly whether or not she's upset, and in fact would have preferred the story on the board vote to have never seen print. That speaks well of her natural, ladylike modesty, but what does it say about our county?

In the past six months or so, two other high-profile, highly-paid county workers either left abruptly (and in a huff) or were unexpectedly laid off. In the case of the laid-off worker, a tireless volunteer who has given 40 years to the county's rescue squad, the termination occurred one month before he qualified for county retirement benefits ... and seven months before qualification for Social Security benefits.

Like Shannon, neither of those former county workers is griping, but the question must be asked: "Does one risk taking a shafting in the long run if one chooses a career in the service of Prince George County?"


On another subject, this week's petition on the part of a Hopewell defense lawyer to have our commonwealth's attorney call a special grand jury is a matter deserving of considerable pondering.

One might argue any defense attorney worth his/her salt is always going to swing for the fences when advocating for a client, and in the case of Homer Eliades, there are four clients involved. Many such public petitions (and in court, lots of hail-Mary motions) are made so they will be on the record as the basis for possible appeals. Also, the smart advocate knows an opponent unnerved by a constant barrage of criticism, justified or not, is more liable to make errors which could compel the court to strike an indictment or, upon appeal, reverse a conviction.

Conventional wisdom would suggest Eliades is playing the psych-out game like the stone cold pro he is. Such tactical exercises have little to do with justice per se and much to do with a lawyer's professional duty to perform any action, within the law, which will militate in his client's interests.

Then again, my conversation with Jim Kouri, vice president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police was a real eye-opener. After he heard the facts - plus a few of the more persistent and believable conjectures - he surmised that Eliades' request may be justified, even absolutely necessary.

Kouri surmises that, after three weeks of this multi-layered investigation, if there's not yet enough evidence to base a charge on, investigators may be on a fishing expedition. And that's not a good thing.

Everybody, if one digs deep enough, probably has a little something in his/her past (say, accepting illegally dubbed copies of DVDs from a pal) that would be technically illegal but hardly worth a full tilt local-state-federal probe.

If investigators are looking into more serious allegations (of, say, civil rights violations reported by a dope dealer with multiple convictions who now says she was ripped off or shaken down by a bureau employee), most grand juries, according to Kouri, will indict on very little evidence and let the resultant trial sort it out.

I have a natural predilection in favor of letting any criminal investigation run its course unimpeded. But if good cops are hanging in limbo with their reputations on the line (along with those of their brother and sister officers), then all due speed would seem to be the order of the day.

One thing is for sure, and may account for much of the public hostility about the way Chief Marks has handled the media since January: A former Army intelligence officer pal of mine who knows the city well told me, "This is the first investigation of its kind in the history of Hopewell which has been, so far, leakproof." And for that fact alone, Chief Rex Marks is to be congratulated, indeed, praised to the skies.

On the question of whether or not his investigation is taking an unconscionable amount of time, the jury, if you'll forgive the expression, is still out.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Public servants, public pressure

By Mark Dorroh

This week's attempt on the part of defense attorney Homer Eliades to put some heat on our chief of police has got me thinking and remembering. In my 16 years of being a local journalist, this isn't the first time I've seen public opinion put pressure on a public servant.

In the case of the ongoing investigation into possible police malfeasance, Eliades says he, his clients and the commonwealth's attorney are dancing in the dark, not permitted to know what charges, if any, will be made. Accordingly, Eliades wants city council to instruct the city manager to direct the chief to either name the allegations and file charges or return a number of bureau employees, who have been on paid, administrative leave since late January, to their job duties. Eliades says it's unfair for the officers and the public to be kept on pins and needles, and that it does the city's reputation no good for the investigation to be both secret and drawn out.

Of course he's right, but there's more to this issue than fairness and public relations. If the chief has reason to believe there are problems with specific employees of his bureau, leaving them on duty to possibly foment more mischief is not an option.

And a hasty investigation is worse than none at all. Going off at half-cock is the world's best way to cast aspersions on innocent people while giving the guilty time to cover up, lawyer up, even flee. Any probe that is done must be done deliberately, with information delivered to press and public when and if true bills are handed up by the grand jury.

So the suspensions with pay, though troublesome, are far less so than the alternatives. Ignoring the possibilities that the guilty will commit further criminal acts, or that the innocent will have mud splattered on their reputations is not an option. Depriving an uncharged suspect of income is also not an option.

To be sure, there is a sort of natural time constraint in effect, and the meter is running. The chief knows the bureau employees on leave will, sooner or later, be subpoenaed to appear in court to testify on cases in which they were the arresting or investigating officer. If they are forbidden by either bureau policy or law from doing so while under investigation, a lot of suspects, innocent and otherwise, could have their cases put on hold, clogging up court dockets with business which would otherwise be quickly adjudicated.

And the chief, from the conversations I've had with him, appears to consider expeditious conduct of the probe to be an important part of his duty to his city and his fellow officers.

This afternoon, city council members are sitting down with our city manager, who is Chief Marks' supervisor, and some intimate they will pressure Alan Archer to pressure Marks to do what Eliades wants.

If that's what happens it's a shame. The law is the law, and no matter what the public's perception of a given case, allowing that opinion to hasten (or delay) discovery of evidence which might exonerate or implicate suspects is a bad move, ethically, legally and morally.

If Marks and Archer stand their ground and refuse to allow elected officials to interfere with their duties, there's nothing council can do, except to fire Archer and hope his replacement will do council's bidding.

And if it turns out, in the cold light of day, that Marks and Archer are right to stand fast and adhere to professional standards, no matter what the personal or career costs, then they, not city council, will be the heroes of this little saga.

Since there are only so many well-qualified persons to handle the complex and demanding tasks of city manager and police chief, casting off the ones we've already got might be, to say the least, radically ill advised.

Personally, I don't have a dog in this fight. I like all the principal players just fine, and believe they all do their level best to make our city a better place. But I can like someone even while I oppose his actions. In this case, until much more time has gone by, I have to believe our elected officials should stand back and allow the hired help to do its work, regardless of what the caprices of public opinion might demand.

Municipal corruption and the Hopewell inferiority complex

By Mark Dorroh

The announcement in late January that the Hopewell Bureau of Police has begun an investigation and put a number of employees on administrative leave has rocked our community, but some people are going out of their way to make it worse.

Officers we know (none of whom are under suspicion) are complaining, justifiably and off the record, that rank-and-file Hopewell B. of P. employees are getting a little tired of being tarred with the brush of corruption.

Even if charges are eventually brought, those indicted are still innocent until proven otherwise.

But that's no reason our Crank Corps, Nutball Navy, Erroneous Airheads and other assorted malcontents can't prejudge them. Allow me to relate the story of one such pernicious twit who wasted five minutes of my life I'll never get back.

Early Monday morning, while the newsroom was still on deadline, a reader called my desk to inform me that Hopewell was the most corrupt city in the world.

Having lived in Chicago 15 years, I found that a little hard to believe. The old joke about Chicago's political machine motto being "Vote early and often" is, I have reason to know, much closer to truth than fiction. During the years I lived there, so many deceased people voted, Hollywood considered filming "Dawn of the Dead" in Chicago on election day so the producers could blow off the expense of hiring theatrical extras to play the zombies.

Heck, my former member of Congress was Dan "Rosty the Postman" Rostenkowski, the "House Appropriations Committee Chairman For Life." You remember Rosty, right? He's the Chicago Democrat who went down behind several thousand counts of selling for cash the postage stamps he was supposed to be using to send franked mail to constituents. Believe me, I know world-class corruption and Hopewell isn't even in the running. Richmond, maybe. Hopewell? Please.

But this caller had his mind made up. After demonstrating his ignorance on the subject of what constitutes an inordinately corrupt municipality, he demanded to know why The Hopewell News wasn't telling the truth about all this corruption. I gently explained that we were indeed investigating and would publish the truth when we found it. But he insisted we owed our readers an immediate accounting of what was going on here in corrupt old Hopewell.

I foolishly continued to try to explain to this guy even if we'd gotten some off-the-record skinny that makes sense (which we had) we still have to touch base with several independent, trustworthy sources, crosscheck stories for hidden agendas and corroboration, then see if the final result passes the common sense "smell test." I told him, truthfully, that all that stuff takes a while.

At that point it became clear to the caller that I was part of the cover-up. All I can say to that allegation is, if I am covering up something, I'm being horribly underpaid to do it. Here I am, driving a 16-year-old car, wearing 10-year-old shirts and 15-year-old ties, and my primary source of leisure time entertainment is free books and videos from the public library. I always thought corruption paid a lot better, didn't you?

Maybe if I continue to work in this, the world's most corrupt city, I'll one day get the hang of it and earn some real graft. The truth of the matter is, the only ugly thing about this town is the Hopewell Inferiority Complex, handed down through the generations and cherished by so many of its residents. I suppose some of us hate our home town for the same reasons family squabbles sometimes reach an intensity that manifests in lawsuits, lifetime estrangement and even violence. One of the great universal truths about human nature is, we tend to attack those people and things which are closest to us.

Also, I really believe some folks confuse urbanity and sophistication with being cynical and world-weary. They think it's hip to hate the civic institutions which protect and defend them. Their habitual outrage ignores the demonstrable fact that any profession can attract opportunistic predators, even law enforcement.

What many of us don't understand is, compared to the population at large, officers of the court are held to incredibly high standards of behavior; it goes with the job description.

A lawyer friend of mine put it this way: "If somebody outside the legal profession gets caught breaking the law, he faces possible fines and prison time. If I break the law, upon conviction, I automatically lose my right to market the job skills I've spent decades acquiring - permanently reducing my future income prospects - then I have to start my new career, if I can even get anyone to hire me, from scratch."

Are there rogue cops, judges and lawyers? Sure, but it is their very rarity which makes their apprehension such a huge story. And it's a story which must be told with the same absolute commitment to the truth as that which is displayed by cops, lawyers and judges who, 99.9 percent of the time, are far fairer, more honest and on the whole better people than some of us could ever claim to be.