O'Malley's Office Accused Of Pressuring State Police
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
A state police commander who oversaw Maryland's automotive inspections program alleged that "strong political pressure" from Gov. Martin O'Malley's office was behind a recent decision to allow a Prince George's County station to resume inspections four years after its license was revoked for fraudulent practices.
In memos and e-mails reviewed by The Washington Post, Capt. Robert F. Bambary vigorously objected to issuing a new license to Hilltop Fleet Services, whose previous license was revoked after police found evidence of the Capitol Heights station issuing certificates for hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles its mechanics did not inspect.
Bambary's opinion was initially backed by his superiors, including Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, superintendent of state police. Sheridan wrote in a memo last fall to O'Malley's chief of staff that Hilltop had "undoubtedly permitted thousands of unsafe vehicles to be registered in our State."
But Sheridan had changed his position by March after O'Malley's office intervened following sustained lobbying by Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's), a longtime advocate of the station's owners.
Records and interviews reveal months of e-mail exchanges and meetings, including a personal appeal to O'Malley (D) after Exum became frustrated with Sheridan. Exum later held up Sheridan's confirmation in the Senate, saying that he was concerned about police treatment of minorities.
Reluctant police officials eventually walked the owners through the license reinstatement process, despite turning down three previous requests and having serious misgivings about a station that once issued 2,067 inspection certificates in a five-month period. Police estimated that mechanics could inspect only 872 cars in that time.
The Hilltop case offers a striking example of how the intervention of elected officials can change a bureaucratic decision. Although Bambary considered it political meddling, aides to O'Malley and Exum said they were only trying to ensure that Hilltop, one of more than 1,600 inspection stations in Maryland, was treated fairly.
Sean R. Malone, an O'Malley aide who talked with Exum about his concerns, said the governor's office did not direct the police to issue a license.
"Our role simply was clarifying what the process was and asking for a resolution that was reasonable and fair under the circumstances," Malone said. "We deferred to the state police and Colonel Sheridan and their professional judgment."
Sheridan said in an interview that he decided to allow Hilltop to resume inspections after learning that police had reinstated other revoked licenses and did not have firm rules as to how that should be done. Sheridan said that he kept O'Malley's office apprised of his agency's actions but that the decision to issue a new license on March 3 was his.
"I found out that we had no policy on what 'revocation' really meant," Sheridan said. "If we're going to err on this, we're going to err on the side of the business owner."
Hilltop is just outside of Exum's legislative district. Exum said he considers the station a constituent that was being given the runaround by police. "If you go to jail, they tell you how long you should serve," Exum said, adding that he felt that police were "acting as the prosecutor, the judge and the jury."