ACLU Wins Release of Details of Baltimore Police Department's $250,000 Secret Fund

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
December 10, 2001 12:00 am

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BALTIMORE–In a victory for the principle of open government, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland today won the release of information about a secret $250,000 fund established for the Baltimore City Police Department.

“This information will now allow members of the Baltimore City Council to provide oversight of the fund,” said Dwight Sullivan, Managing Attorney of the ACLU of Maryland’s Baltimore office and counsel in the case. “The public’s right to know has been vindicated.”

A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge today issued a court order directing city and police officials to reveal records documenting expenditures from the fund to ACLU attorneys representing Viva House, a Catholic Workers community. The Baltimore City Police Department turned over the documents to ACLU counsel in court this morning.

The details of the fund were the subject of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of Viva House when department officials refused to honor a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request.

Under questioning, Col. John V. Pignataro, chief of information technology for the Baltimore City Police Department and their expert witness in the case, admitted that the release of certain information documenting expenditures from the fund would not endanger public safety.

According to the information turned over today, invoices covering the first three months of the fund’s operation show that the police department spent $67,935 on wiretap equipment, $23,321.45 on video equipment, and $25,200 on computer equipment. In sum, the released information accounts for $116,456.45 of the $250,000 allocated for the police department’s use.

“Members of the community can now evaluate whether the money is better spent on surveillance equipment or on services such as libraries and schools,” said Brendan Walsh of Viva House. “This is a victory for the community.”

The case arises from the Baltimore Board of Estimates’ approval of the $250,000 fund for clandestine police operations during its January 10, 2001 meeting. Viva House filed requests that month under the MPIA to require the Police Department and the City Finance Director to reveal how the $250,000 was being spent. The requests were denied, and in June the ACLU of Maryland filed suit.

The ACLU of Maryland contended that under Maryland’s freedom of information law, Viva House has the right to know how the city’s funds are being spent in this case. Under the law, “All persons are entitled to have access to information about the affairs of government and official conduct of public officers and employees.” In addition, the law was intended to “be construed in favor of permitting inspection of a public record, with the least cost and least delay to the person or governmental unit that requests the inspection.”

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