Bleeding the City

July 09, 1995

Like a resentful motorist stopped for speeding, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke believes he has been unfairly singled out to meet a higher standard than his predecessors in publicly disclosing the legal fees Baltimore City routinely pays outside counsel. Yet the fact that previous mayors were not forced to become better stewards of the public's dollar simply means change is overdue.

What matters is that the system be reformed to give the public a complete accounting of how its money is spent on lawyers. Mr. Schmoke says he will do that. That should be his first step. There is already strong evidence the city relies too heavily on outside counsel. He has the power to see that nearly all legal work is performed in-house.

The mayor says even he doesn't know exactly how much the city spends on legal fees. It may take weeks to find out. That's inexcusable.

The city solicitor has records of lawyers hired through the Board of Estimates. But some departments can hire lawyers without Board of Estimates approval and there has been no central bookkeeping to keep track. Each department will have to go through its records before answering Mr. Schmoke's query.

Then there are the quasi-public agencies, such as the Baltimore Development Corp. They have never revealed how much public money is spent paying legal bills. Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. last week issued an opinion that such agencies must comply with public disclosure laws. Mr. Schmoke should reveal everything. The public has a right to know.

Even the incomplete picture available shows the city spends a fortune on outside legal fees. Since Nov. 1, 1991, nearly $8 million in legal fees have been approved by the Board of Estimates and processed by the city solicitor's office. That's an average of some $2.2 million a year -- more than double what the state spends, though its budget is seven times larger than the city's.

Neighboring Baltimore County doesn't have as many legal entanglements as the city, but with a legal department of just 17 lawyers it keeps annual expenditures on outside legal fees to less than $1 million. Baltimore City has 78 lawyers on its payroll. But even if the city hired a dozen more lawyers, it would be cheaper than bleeding the city to pay for outside counsel.

There still might be occasions when private lawyers are needed, but not if the main purpose is to reward friends and allies. Putting legal work out for bids would have prevented accusations that Mr. Schmoke funnels work to the Shapiro and Olander law firm, home of the mayor's campaign manager and his campaign treasurer. Mr. Schmoke's blind eye toward these outrageous outside legal fees and the enrichment of his most fervent supporters is likely to be a campaign issue this summer. Taxpayers dollars are being wasted and favored lawyers are earning fat fees. It is a situation that must be stopped.

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