Far Cry from Full Disclosure

July 27, 1995

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he would give Baltimore "the most extensive disclosure of law fees that this city has ever seen." And, by gum, it looks like he has done it. But the inch-thick report is still a far cry from the "fullest disclosure possible" that Mr. Schmoke said he would provide.

The report reveals which law firms have been retained by the city from Jan. 1, 1991, to June 30, 1995. But there is precious little detail about the nature of the legal work performed. Without that detail it is difficult to tell whether the charged fees were within reason or whether expertise beyond the scope of the city legal department was needed.

The degree of disclosure varies from department to department. For example, the Department of Education tells us it paid $731,402 to Felicity Lavelle during that 4 1/2 -year period. And in a footnote, the department points out that Felicity Lavelle is the court-appointed monitor on special education compliance. The report says the Health Department paid $2,564 to Tydings and Rosenberg in 1993 and $21,902 to the same firm this year. But there is no explanation of what the firm did or why it only needs to do it every other year.

Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems paid $3,281 to Crystal R. Chissell in 1991, $12,341 to her in 1992 and $4,531 in 1993, but the lawyer got only $1,361 last year, which was also the first year Shapiro and Olander received legal fees from BSAS -- $6,584. So far in 1995, S&O has gotten $1,354 from BSAS and Ms. Chissell has received nothing. Has Shapiro and Olander taken over as the expert at whatever legal service Ms. Chissell used to provide? You can't tell from the mayor's report.

The Healthy Start program paid no legal fees in 1991, but in 1992 paid $2,404 to Frank, Bernstein and $1,492 to Tydings and Rosenberg. The next year it paid $9,050 to Tydings and Rosenberg and in 1994 it paid $18,768 to that firm. But so far this year Healthy Start has paid $5,904 to Tydings and Rosenberg and $5,039 to Shapiro and Olander. Looks like Shapiro and Olander has become the legal expert here, too. But what is it they're doing? You can't tell from the mayor's report.

What you can tell is that the city has spent an awful lot of money on outside counsel, $17.4 million since 1991. The mayor says those lawyers recovered $30 million and obtained $26 million more in judgments. That's intentionally misleading: Nearly all this windfall is the result of one law firm's work in one case -- the city's claim against asbestos manufacturers and suppliers. There's no reason why the city government's own 77 lawyers couldn't be used more often to save money.

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