Legal bills seen as key

Councilwoman says chairman had more information

`Where's the smoking gun?'

March 15, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF WRITER

A Columbia councilwoman who fought for six weeks to see the Columbia Association's legal bills says a review of the records proves that the hunch behind her crusade was right - Chairman Lanny Morrison has been privy to more legal advice on association matters than the rest of the council.

"August 30, there's an entry, `Revise memo per Mr. Morrison,'" Councilwoman Cecilia Januszkiewicz of Long Reach said yesterday, one day after she spent six hours poring over billing records from a private law firm that represents the association.

"To me, that's exactly what I have been concerned about - our advice is determined in advance by discussion with the chair and the legal counsel, and the advice is not as impartial as it might appear," she said.

Morrison said he would not respond until next week, when Januszkiewicz plans to make a full report of her findings to the council. But he questioned whether she had turned anything up.

"Where's the smoking gun?" he asked. " ... It seems like the appropriate thing would be to ask for an explanation, rather than making accusations."

Januszkiewicz also said her review of the records from Piper, Marbury, Rudnick & Wolfe showed the firm billed CA for more than $10,000 in work performed on a property-tax matter after CA's board of directors voted on it in December.

Some legal issues arose after the vote, but Januszkiewicz questioned whether they merited such an amount in one month's time.

On Dec. 21, the board voted to change the way CA calculates assessments, the local equivalent of property taxes, on the advice of Piper, Marbury attorney David H. Bamberger. He said the change had to be made to comply with a new state Truth in Taxation law.

After the vote, questions arose about whether the change was necessary or even legal. Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills sought an opinion on the matter from Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

Bamberger met with representatives of the attorney general's office in January to discuss why the firm advised the association to make the change, which Curran said was unnecessary in an opinion issued last week.

"My concern is, they were trying to convince the attorney general that their position was correct, and I'm not sure that's an expense that Columbia residents should bear," Januszkiewicz said.

Bamberger declined to comment, saying he would discuss the matter with the council at a meeting next week.

"If a client has questions, I'm always happy to address them, but I don't think the appropriate place to do that is the newspaper," he said.

Januszkiewicz had been seeking since December to review Piper, Marbury billing records, but some council members were opposed to releasing them. She said she suspected that Morrison had received more advice on the taxation matter than he had shared with the full council. Later, she also expressed concern about the size of the legal bills.

The bills show not only the amount charged - which council members know, because they approve the payments - but also a detailed accounting of the work done to generate those charges.

After a protracted debate about whether council members have the right to see the billing records, the council gave Januszkiewicz permission to do so last week. On Tuesday, Januszkiewicz reviewed records from May 1 to Jan. 31, accounting for $433,000 in legal bills.

Januszkiewicz said she found "numerous" instances in which Piper, Marbury appeared to give advice to Morrison and Councilman Kirk Halpin of Kings Contrivance without the knowledge of the rest of the board.

She noted one entry for Dec. 21, the day the council voted on the taxation matter: "Review Charter, Bylaws and legal research regarding corporate matter; draft letter to Mr. Halpin re same."

"I don't recall ever receiving a copy of that letter even though the corporation was billed for it rather than Kirk," Januszkiewicz said in an e-mail outlining her findings to the council.

Halpin declined to comment on Januszkiewicz's allegation, but criticized her for going public with it before talking with him.

"It would be nice if someone has a question or a problem with what I do that they would ask me - `What happened? Why did you do this?' - rather than going to the newspaper and saying, `This is what happened,' and then asking me to defend the issue," Halpin said.

The Aug. 30 entry that talks about revising a memo "per Mr. Morrison" refers to an association policy matter, Januszkiewicz said. She declined to elaborate, saying the matter was confidential.

Januszkiewicz said the records also indicate that a lawyer for Piper, Marbury met with officials from the attorney general's office to discuss the taxation matter on Aug. 1, months before it was voted on. Morrison participated in a telephone conference call the next day with two Piper, Marbury lawyers, she said the records show.

The council was not informed of the meeting or the conference call before voting on the taxation matter, Januszkiewicz said. She, Russell and Councilman Vincent Marando of Wilde Lake tried to postpone voting on the tax matter Dec. 21, saying they needed more legal advice.

"I guess what's so galling is when the three of us were saying, `Let's talk to the lawyers. Let's get their advice,' Lanny already had that advice, for which the association paid. It's just the rest of us didn't," she said.

Morrison has said in the past that he has had more contact than usual with the association's private attorneys because the association had been without an in-house general counsel and a president for most of the past year. Those officials would normally act as liaison to private attorneys.

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