Less than six months after the initial euphoria, the stark reality is setting in. Baltimore's empowerment zone, a coveted designation that is supposed to bring $100 million extra money from the Clinton administration, is not progressing smoothly.
First came the news that Edward Hitchcock, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's choice for the $120,000-a-year empowerment czar, is being eased out amid allegations that he could not deal with the fundamental twin demands of openness and community participation. Now comes the embarrassing revelation that William E. Carlson, while working as the top lawyer for the empowerment zone board, solicited work for his Shapiro and Olander law firm from companies eligible for empowerment zone contracts.
When Mr. Schmoke learned of the Carlson letter, he said: "I figuratively took him to the woodshed. This was a mistake in judgment; the letter should not have been written."
On their face, the solicitation letters can readily be interpreted as evidence of conflict-of-interest behavior and unethical influence peddling. The public has every right to be outraged.
Shapiro and Olander is no run-of-the-mill law firm but a legal powerhouse that has grown and prospered over the eight years of the Schmoke administration because of its close connections to City Hall. Ronald M. Shapiro, one of its founders, is Mr. Schmoke's long-time campaign treasurer; another key figure in the firm is Larry S. Gibson, Mr. Schmoke's campaign manager.
"We are the mayor's lawyer," Mr. Shapiro said repeatedly yesterday, when he rescinded the Carlson letter and observed it "could have led to conflicts of interests which cannot and will not be tolerated."
Apologizing to the mayor and the empowerment zone board of directors, Mr. Shapiro pledged: "Shapiro and Olander has not and will not represent any private business in connection with the empowerment zone. Furthermore, William Carlson will not represent any business located in the empowerment zone on any matter whether related to the empowerment zone or not."
This is not the first time that close ties between the Schmoke City Hall and what is described there as "the law firm" have prompted questions. While there may have been no improprieties, "the law firm" does legal work for so many quasi-public city agencies that it has been widely seen as a way to gain access to the mayor's inner sanctum.
The question is whether "the mayor's lawyer" simultaneously should be doing so much legal work for agencies that claim their still secret contracts with the firm are none of the public's business.