3 firms hired to help city in law cases Baltimore's decision to cost it more than $500,000 in legal fees

Ex-official to benefit

Delicate cases include police overtime claim, river water dispute

September 11, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Heeding the city Law Department's request for help in specialized legal matters, Baltimore's top officials voted yesterday to hire three outside firms at a cost of more than $500,000, including a $100,000 retainer to former City Solicitor Neal M. Janey and another attorney.

The Board of Estimates -- a five-member panel that includes the mayor, council president and comptroller -- approved the expenditures with little public discussion.

The cases include a dispute about overtime for police officers and a legal tussle over water rights at the Susquehanna River.

"What the city has at stake are millions [of dollars]," said City Solicitor Otho M. Thompson, who is also a member of the board. "So these are highly specialized cases, and a success will save millions in the future."

During his re-election campaign two years ago, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was the target of criticism for excessive city spending on outside law firms, including payments to Shapiro & Olander, which numbered among its lawyers his two top political advisers.

A report by the city issued in response to the criticism detailed expenditures to outside law firms of $17.4 million from Jan. 1, 1991, through June 30, 1995, an average of $3.8 million a year.

Schmoke has since said he would curtail city spending on outside legal firms, and instruct the Law Department to handle more cases. But he maintains that the city needs to hire outside legal counsel in especially difficult cases.

The Law Department could not say immediately how much money has been spent on outside legal counsel during the past two years.

In yesterday's vote by the board, the city hired Janey and attorney Jeral A. Milton to ensure that the city can draw water from the Susquehanna River without restriction. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission wants to prevent the city from drawing water during critically low periods.

The city contends that if it loses the case, increased maintenance and other capital expenditures would cost Baltimore up to $3 million annually. The river flows from New York into the Chesapeake Bay.

"It is a case that may be controversial among the states, and original jurisdiction may be in the [U.S.] Supreme Court," Thompson said.

In another case, the city will increase by $300,000 the legal fees and expenses of attorney John D. Maddox and the law firm of Arter & Hadden in an overtime case involving police sergeants and lieutenants.

The city has spent more than $800,000 in what has become a four-year fight over millions of dollars in overtime pay the police officers say is owed to them. Federal labor law requires overtime pay for certain workers but not managers.

"In defending this case, we are seeking to bar the application of Fair Labor Standards Act to all state and local governments. A successful challenge could free all state and local governments from the costly burden of overtime pay mandated by this law," according to a written explanation by the Law Department to the board.

In the third case of hiring outside legal help, the city agreed to pay Florence W. Prioleau of the law firm of Holland & Knight $125,000 to represent the interests of Baltimore in Washington for a year.

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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