Association legal bills questioned

Januszkiewicz seeks records on $300,000 paid over 8 months

Portion is available

Council chairman says information may be too sensitive


March 08, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Association racked up more than $300,000 in legal bills in the space of eight months, and Councilwoman Cecilia Januszkiewicz is asking how.

Since late December, she has been seeking copies of bills paid to the firm Piper, Marbury, Rudnick & Wolfe for legal work performed from May 1 to Dec. 31.

The bills show not just the amount charged - which the council knows - but also what work was done to generate those charges.

Januszkiewicz has been given permission to see some of the bills, amounting to $25,000.

"To be honest, to have $300,000 worth of legal fees between May and December is stunning," said Januszkiewicz, who represents Long Reach village.

Since 1997, the association's annual legal bills have ranged from $34,000 to $181,000, she said.

"I'd like to know what it is they've been doing," she said. " ... If there was nothing to hide, I would have had them by now. Every time they tell me `no,' I want them more."

Council Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice contends that the bills could contain information so sensitive that it should not be disclosed even to council members, who also serve as the association's board of directors.

Morrison also said the bills are high because the association's salaried general counsel, who might have performed much of the work, was forced out last March - a move he seemed to blame, at least in part, on Januszkiewicz, who served on the Columbia Council at the time.

"CA is without general counsel, and we do not have to look very far to determine how this came about and who is responsible," Morrison said in a 3 1/2 -page statement he presented at a council meeting last month in response to Januszkiewicz's claim that he was withholding information.

The issue has split the council, which is scheduled to discuss the matter tonight. David H. Bamberger, a lawyer from Piper, Marbury, will attend the meeting to advise the council on whether the bills should be released - which Januszkiewicz says is a conflict of interest.

"I think it is improper for them to give advice on whether their own legal bills should be disclosed," she said.

Bamberger said he does not see a conflict of interest.

"I don't see it that way, but the association is certainly free to get advice from others if they choose to," he said.

In his written statement, Morrison said that if the board decides to give Januszkiewicz access to the records, it would have to determine "that she has no conflict of interest" before she could see them. His statement did not elaborate about any potential conflict.

Januszkiewicz, an attorney, said Morrison was referring to the fact she worked for what was then Piper & Marbury for two years in the 1970s.

"I'm astonished that my employment 23 years ago would somehow create a perception that there might be some conflict," she said.

Morrison said in an interview yesterday that he was not raising any specific conflict-of-interest allegation.

"I didn't say she has a conflict of interest," he said. "The question merely needs to be asked."

The legal bills became an issue in December, after the council voted 6-4 to change the way the association assesses property. Council members opposed to the change - Januszkiewicz among them - said it effectively lifted a ceiling on Columbia's equivalent of property taxes.

Those who favored it - including Morrison - said the change was needed to comply with the Truth in Taxation law, which took effect Oct. 1.

After the vote, Januszkiewicz accused Morrison of keeping the council in the dark about legal advice from an assistant attorney general, who said the law did not apply to the association, and from Bamberger, who said it did. She asked to see copies of legal bills on the matter.

Morrison said the request would demand a lot of staff time because someone would have to go through the bills to find items related to the Truth in Taxation matter, according to one of several e-mails Januszkiewicz provided to The Sun. He noted that one of Januszkiewicz's requests - for copies of council members' expense reports - demanded 60 hours of staff time.

"You can save staff time by simply providing copies of all Piper bills beginning on May 1," Januszkiewicz responded in an e-mail. "I will be happy to do my own analysis and would, in fact, prefer this approach. There is nothing in Piper's bills that would be confidential from a Director."

Morrison contends that is not the case. In his statement to the council last month, he noted that legal bills contain sensitive information about litigation and personnel matters.

Januszkiewicz said that information should not be kept from the association's board of directors, which routinely discusses personnel matters and litigation in executive session.

"There are things that shouldn't be blabbed," Januszkiewicz said. "But the directors have a right to know, where is their money going and why?"

Last month, Januszkiewicz said she was given permission to review the Truth in Taxation bills, which amount to about $25,000. But she said she has not taken the time to do that yet, because she wants to see all of the bills at once.

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