Grievance panel investigating housing lawyer

April 12, 1995|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,Sun Staff Writer

The Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission is investigating whether a lawyer for Baltimore's Housing Authority violated ethical rules by allegedly asking a federal auditor to withhold evidence of possible crimes from the FBI.

An investigator for the commission recently questioned the auditor about the encounter with city housing lawyer David Leibowitz, the first step in an examination that could take weeks or months to complete.

The commission, which reviews claims of wrongdoing against lawyers practicing in the state, could take a number of steps in the case, ranging from dismissing the claim to reprimanding or suspending Mr. Leibowitz, legal experts said.

The chief counsel for the commission, Melvin Hirshman, declined to discuss the case. Mr. Leibowitz -- one of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's top lawyers before moving to the Housing Authority last year -- denied asking federal auditors to withhold evidence from the FBI.

"I'm outraged by this allegation," Mr. Leibowitz said Monday. "There is no basis for the allegation, and I am confident that it will be resolved in my favor. And then I will determine what my rights are with respect to the unfounded allegation."

The allegation dates to late 1993, after the FBI had launched a fresh corruption investigation of the Housing Authority, and auditors for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) wanted to review the agency's books.

Mr. Leibowitz and others at the agency were worried that housing workers might confuse the auditors with the FBI, and unwittingly incriminate themselves in the corruption probe.

Shortly after Christmas that year, federal auditor Gary Albright was summoned to a meeting with Mr. Leibowitz at Baltimore City Hall, according to Mr. Albright.

Once there, Mr. Albright said the lawyer asked him to sign a statement vowing that whatever evidence of wrongdoing he might find during the course of his financial audit would never be furnished to FBI agents.

The alleged incident was reported in a series of articles published by The Sun in February that detailed problems with a no-bid repair program run by the Housing Authority.

Mr. Albright said an investigator for the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission questioned him a few weeks ago.

The investigator, Michael Peregoy, did not return phone messages this week.

Even if the grievance commission substantiates the allegation, several legal experts said that asking government employees to withhold evidence from the FBI doesn't break the law.

"Clearly, it was a mistake in judgment," said Charles O. Monk, a former deputy Maryland attorney general. "It was a pretty silly thing to do, but it's hard to imagine that this would be elevated to obstruction of justice."

A legal ethics expert agreed.

"He has a right to protect his own people," said Robert Drinan, a Catholic priest and former congressman who teaches ethics at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. "But does that mean he can insist that nothing be turned over to the FBI? I'm not saying it's obstruction of justice. But it is beyond normal advocacy."

To prove an obstruction case, prosecutors must show that there was an intent to suppress evidence. Legal experts said what is being questioned is whether Mr. Leibowitz engaged "in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice" -- a provision of the rules of conduct for attorneys in Maryland.

"It sounds as if he became extra cautious and over-lawyered," said Benjamin R. Civiletti, the U.S. attorney general during the Carter administration. "HUD has a right to audit the housing agency and ask questions. Any request to keep evidence from the FBI was misplaced."

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