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Baltimore top cop’s implosion exposes flawed vetting

FILE - In this July 30, 2015 file photo, a man walks past a corner where a victim of a shooting was discovered in Baltimore. The beleaguered Baltimore police force has been reeling from scandal to scandal as it tries to cope with a soaring violent crime rate. The latest issue flared Tuesday, when police commissioner Darryl De Sousa, facing charges of not paying his taxes, resigned. Other controversies and struggles in recent years have included the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, a federal oversight program requiring expansive reforms and an explosive racketeering trial involving a corrupt unit of detectives. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

BALTIMORE (AP) — The humiliating resignation of Baltimore’s top police commander over failing to pay his taxes has blown open a window into City Hall’s flawed vetting, raising concerns about administrative blunders just when the city seemed like it might be gathering momentum against violent crime.

Mayor Catherine Pugh told reporters Wednesday that she “absolutely owns” the decision to appoint Darryl De Sousa as police commissioner earlier this year. Baltimore’s third top cop in as many years, he resigned under pressure Tuesday, less than four months into the job, as the city worked to comply with a federal subpoena for years of records involving his finances.

The mayor, about a year-and-a-half into her own administration, says her staff is designing a rigorous review for candidates emerging from her national search for another replacement, so that the next commissioner can focus on her top priority: reducing violence.

“I just want to make sure they are carefully vetted, that we dot all our i’s and cross all our t’s. We want to make sure that the next candidate for this particular position is well scrutinized,” said Pugh, who also praised De Sousa’s leadership during his brief tenure, regardless of his criminal charges.

De Sousa’s tax problems are only the latest mess missed by Pugh’s senior staff during the city’s hiring process.

Two other City Hall officials also recently resigned amid questions about their backgrounds, including the mayor’s spokesman, who flamed out only 24 hours after he was introduced, when The Baltimore Sun inquired about lawsuits from his time in law enforcement that cost taxpayers some $80,000.

City Solicitor Andre Davis pledged that the revamped vetting procedures will soon be “expansive.”

“We’re going to be documenting it better, asking focused questions, invasive questions, questions that perhaps were not asked before,” said Davis, while declining to disclose specifics about their due diligence process.

De Sousa, a 30-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department, portrayed his failure to file three years of taxes as an oversight. If convicted, he faces up to a year in prison and a $25,000 fine for each of the three misdemeanor charges. His initial court appearance is set for Monday.

Some observers suspect De Sousa’s exposure may run deeper, since federal prosecutors have subpoenaed the city’s finance and police departments for years of records regarding his taxes, secondary jobs, travel, and other files.

“Whenever I look at a tax charge, I’m more alert to the possibility that there’s much more that lies behind the nonpayment of taxes,” said Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor and an attorney.

De Sousa’s case is being investigated by the same U.S. prosecutors who recently tried members of a corrupt Baltimore police unit called the Gun Trace Task Force. But Davis said Baltimore isn’t “focused on what the feds are doing.”

“They’re doing whatever they need to do, what they should do. We’re focused on the city,” Davis told reporters.

When it came to vetting De Sousa, there was no shortage of police insiders who vouched for him based upon his decades of experience within the department. But it’s unclear whether Pugh’s aides didn’t ask or press enough on financial questions, or whether he withheld pertinent information.

City Council member Brandon Scott, who chairs the public safety committee and was a strong supporter of De Sousa, squarely blames the mayor’s office.

“These folks are supposed to be vetted like a candidate running for president and that did not happen. Right now, that responsibility lies solely with the mayor of Baltimore, and they did not do that, clearly,” Scott said in a phone interview.

The City Council nearly unanimously authorized De Sousa in February, a month after he became acting commissioner. Scott said the council committee does “not have the staff nor the resources to go into those kind of in-depth” vetting investigations.

The city recently concluded its first year under federal oversight, part of a consent decree requiring sweeping police reforms. The decree was authorized in January 2017 after the Justice Department detailed longstanding patterns of racial profiling and unconstitutional policing.

Asked what she would say to city residents with fresh doubts about her administration, Pugh said police reforms didn’t start with De Sousa, nor will they end without him.

“I think we have all the tools in place, and I say to the citizens of Baltimore that we work hard every single day and diligently to continue to reduce violence in this city and to get it right,” she said.

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Associated Press writer Courtney Columbus contributed.

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