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Officers' Finances Demand Frequent Scrutiny, Experts Say

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Before Prince George's County police officers receive their guns and badges, they must pass a credit check and list all their debts. That basic financial disclosure is the last they will ever have to file unless they reach the upper echelon of the department.

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The policy, designed to make sure that people strapped for cash and prone to corruption do not become police officers, is similar to that of every other major department in the Washington area. But as federal investigators continue to probe whether veteran Prince George's officers took money to protect a high-stakes gambling ring frequented by drug dealers, experts say the department should examine employees' finances more closely and more often.

Disclosing information about financial holdings allows investigators to search more easily for irregularities, the experts said. That assumes, however, that officers would have put the money in accounts they list on their disclosure forms. Investigators also might be suspicious if officers bought luxury cars, houses or boats without showing large amounts of money in their accounts to pay for them.

"When you're dealing with narcotics or money, it's both a prophylactic and an investigative tool," said Michael Cherkasky, chief executive of the security firm Altegrity, who instituted financial disclosure rules at the Los Angeles Police Department after a scandal there. "If you see something that doesn't look right -- the guy's got three cars and two Porsches -- then you can ask the question."

Last month, the Prince George's police department acknowledged that all the officers under scrutiny in a federal corruption probe had been reassigned to jobs in which they would not interact with the public. Citing internal documents and confidential law enforcement sources, The Washington Post had reported that five Prince George's officers and two from other departments were under investigation.

According to bankruptcy filings and other public records, at least two of the officers showed signs of financial stress after police raided some of the gambling sites and forced operations in the ring to slow. Police also found a top-of-the-line Dodge Viper, other luxury cars and expensive electronic equipment that seemed out of place for an officer who made about $76,000 a year.

Capt. Misty Mints, a Prince George's police spokeswoman, said in a recent interview that Chief Roberto L. Hylton "wouldn't be opposed" to beefing up financial disclosure rules if it would be effective in rooting out corruption. But she defended the department's policy, saying internal affairs detectives already examine officers' financial irregularities. She said the department would not discuss any policy changes until the federal investigation is complete.

No major police department in the area requires rank-and-file officers to complete financial disclosure forms after they are hired, and police unions fight such rules vigorously. Vince Canales, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police, said he would be "staunchly opposed" to such rules. They rely on the faulty assumption that corrupt officers will fill out their forms honestly after having made some attempt to clean up their illicit earnings, Canales said.

But after serious corruption scandals, national momentum behind the rules seems to be growing.

In 1994, the CIA compelled all employees to file annual financial disclosure statements after Aldrich H. Ames was convicted of living lavishly for eight years on funds he received for spying for Moscow. Almost a decade later, the FBI instituted a similar requirement after the Robert P. Hanssen spy case. Hanssen, too, was receiving payments from Moscow.

Richard Wolf, a spokesman for the FBI in Baltimore, said a large number of agents are now required to disclose, among other things, their bank accounts, investment accounts and what vehicles, boats and airplanes they lease or own. The rules are meant to prevent corruption, he said.

"It's pretty extensive. You got to give them a lot of details," Wolf said, noting that foreign and domestic holdings have to be listed. "It's a nice way to monitor, I would think, agents' money issues."

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