The Alexandria City Council yesterday voted unanimously to conduct an investigation into allegations of misconduct by three top city officials in connection with a police drug probe earlier this year.
Sitting in emergency session, the council voted to hire District lawyer Abbe D. Lowell to investigate allegations that Director of Public Safety Charles T. Strobel prematurely called off a police drug investigation after the names of two city officials surfaced in recordings provided by an undercover agent. The Alexandria Port Packet, a weekly newspaper, reported the allegations Thursday.
The two other city officials to be investigated by the council are City Manager Doug Harman and Sheriff Michael E. Norris. As administrator of the city, Harman is Strobel's superior. Some council members say they are disturbed by the apparent failure of Harman to inform them about the drug probe, especially at a time when they were voting to combine the police department and the sheriff's office.
Norris is one of the city officials whose name turned up on the tape provided by the police informant, according to the Packet. Norris has denied any wrongdoing, and City Commonwealth's Attorney John E. Kloch, who said he listened to the tape, said it does not contain any incriminating evidence against Norris.
The resolution passed yesterday made clear that the council was responding to "serious allegations" it heard in closed session Dec. 11 and which subsequently appeared in the Packet. Council member Donald C. Casey said he told the council at that session about his concerns over the police department's handling of the drug investigation.
The council obviously was reluctant to undertake an investigation of the officials, and most council members emphasized they were taking action not because they believed there was wrongdoing, but to clear the air and the officials' reputations.
The Packet story alleged that Strobel abruptly halted the drug investigation, which centered on a city restaurant believed by police to be a cocaine sales center, after the names of Norris and a high-ranking police official appeared on a tape provided by an informant who saw the two officials in the restaurant.
Police investigators who say they are familiar with the drug probe agree that the tapes do not prove any criminal misconduct on the part of either official. But they said they believed the officials' presence in the restaurant ought to have been followed up.
The allegations against Strobel have also been made to Kloch by police investigators familiar with the case. Kloch said he gave a tape of his conversation with those investigators to the Virginia State Police. A transcript of that tape is being reviewed by the Bureau of Criminial Investigation in Richmond, the bureau's assistant director, James Lettner, said Friday.
Harman, 44, who has been city manager for nine years, building a reputation as an efficient and genial administrator, would not comment on the council's action.
"I guess the question I always have back for council is, 'Who's going to investigate them?' " said Norris, who was elected sheriff in 1977. "Because they're the ones responsible for this whole charade. . . . But I welcome something-or-other much more than what's going on now."
Strobel vigorously defended his department's handling of the drug probe at a news conference Friday and denied that the drug investigation had ended.
Yesterday, he said of the council's action, "Well, council has elected the proper forum in order to resolve this issue before them and I certainly will abide by that forum.
". . . I have no fear because the Department of Public Safety has been true on this issue and that will be proven," added Strobel, a native Alexandrian who was with the police force for 26 years, eight of them as its chief.
Lowell, whose services with the council will become formal at a meeting Jan. 8, then will help the council determine the exact format for the inquiry.
Council members are not sure what action, if any, they could take against Harman and Strobel if they find evidence of breach of duty.
The council cannot discipline Norris, who is an elected official.
Any evidence of criminal wrongdoing would be turned over the city commonwealth's attorney.
Lowell's salary also will be determined at the Jan. 8 meeting.
In contrast to the sunny and festive atmosphere in the city as Christmas shoppers did last-minute errands, the mood inside the council chambers was grim, tense and at times highly charged. Prior to the session, which was attended mainly by city employes including all three officials to be investigated, Harman showed the council members a videotape of Strobel's Friday news conference.
"Public Safety is a little like Caesar's wife; it has to be without any questions at all, virtually," said Mayor Charles E. Beatley.
"I think we need some panel or forum that will make an orderly process of getting the issues on the top of the table," Beatley said, adding that he was concerned about public perceptions of wrongdoing by city officials, even if they had not done anything wrong.
Council members yesterday took action against the backdrop of the upcoming council election in May in which public perceptions could make campaigning difficult at times.
"It's not a trial, it's not an inquisition . . . . It's a fact-finding investigation by a legislative body," said council member Robert L. Calhoun. "Up to this point the vice in this has been secrecy.
"To my knowledge, we've never done anything like this before," he added.
Most council members present -- Lionel Hope was out of town -- prefaced their action with votes of confidence in the city agencies to be investigated.
Council member Carlyle C. Ring praised the work and the integrity of the three officials to be investigated and said nothing he had heard about Strobel that "in the least bit erodes that confidence."
"What I have heard up to this point does not prove anything in any way, except that it is a bunch of rumors and gossip," Ring said.
However, he added, "That does not change a proposition that we had some manure that's been spread around that needs cleaning up."
Casey, who in contrast to the rest of the council did not offer words of praise for the three city officials, said that he had received allegations "relative to drug trafficking in Alexandria" some time ago.
"The story in the Port Packet is entirely accurate," he said, "and there's more to it than that.