Back in the spotlight

Schmoke: Eighteen months after leaving City Hall, the former mayor returns to public view as an advocate for a man convicted of murder.

March 26, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

He's tutored officials in Madagascar on how to be a mayor and lobbied to bring the Olympics to his hometown. And when the FBI accused a Cuban diplomat of spying? Kurt L. Schmoke got the call.

Since Schmoke left City Hall 18 months ago and joined a Washington law firm, he has quietly pursued the business of a corporate lawyer and the duties of public service.

But a request from a Yale University classmate put him back into the headlines last week as an advocate for a Maryland prisoner who claims he was wrongly convicted.

Schmoke, a former state and federal prosecutor, called for the state courts to review the case of Michael Austin, a 52-year-old Baltimore man who has served 26 years of a life sentence for a 1974 murder. He was asked to look into the case by Barry Scheck, the New York lawyer whose innovative use of DNA-typing has helped free dozens of wrongly convicted men.

"He could always be counted on to do the right thing," said Scheck, who has known the former mayor since 1967 when they entered Yale.

For Schmoke, who stepped down as Baltimore's mayor in 1999, the right thing has been to balance his responsibilities as a government relations specialist with the firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering and involvement in philanthropic causes.

Last year, Cuban officials in Washington hired Schmoke to represent Jose Imperatori, 46, who was accused of helping an immigration official in Miami spy for Cuba. When Imperatori was taken into custody by FBI agents at his Bethesda apartment, Schmoke was by his side.

Schmoke's public causes have ranged from teen pregnancy to drug addiction. He is chairman of the Yale Corporation, the university's board of trustees, and co-chairman of the city's bid to co-host the 2012 Olympics.

"One of the criticisms I got as mayor was that I was a policy wonk," Schmoke said. "Those issues are still out there, and I'm trying to give them part of my time."

Last May, Schmoke joined House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings in calling for an end to the death penalty in Maryland. He serves as an adviser to two government help groups, Netgov.com, an association of city government leaders, and the Aspen Institute's panel to improve workplace issues.

And the 51-year-old Schmoke remains a member of the Drug Policy Foundation, a position that led to his call in 1988 for a debate on the decriminalization of drugs.

"It's a different kind of busy," Schmoke said of his days now. "I'm able to control my time better."

And what about that former job he held for 12 years?

"Every day I look at the smile on my wife, Pat's, face, there is nothing I miss about the job," Schmoke said. "The good days outweighed the bad days as mayor, and I had my time."

Joanne Kess has been Schmoke's assistant since his days as state's attorney 18 years ago, and she says her boss is happy in his new roles.

"He seems to be very content in what he's doing and life in the private sector," Kess said.

Schmoke became involved in the Austin case at the urging of Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City. Scheck telephoned Schmoke last year on behalf of Centurion Ministries, a Princeton, N.J., organization. The group works to free prisoners it believes are innocent, and it has turned up evidence of Austin's innocence.

"Anybody who knows him, in terms of personal integrity and his instincts, he is a person we all universally admire because he has strength of character and courage," Scheck said of Schmoke.

The two agreed to meet at the Orioles opening game last April. Scheck, a baseball fan, was in Baltimore that week promoting "Actual Innocence," a book he co-wrote with lawyer Peter Neufeld and journalist Jim Dwyer.

"Kurt and I arranged to meet down by home plate," Scheck said. "I handed him the file and explained the situation and asked if he would help Jim. He said he would look at it, and if it was meritorious and there was no conflict he would get involved."

Until he spoke publicly on the Austin case last week, Schmoke had worked quietly to persuade Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy not to oppose Austin's bid for freedom.

The Austin case may be Schmoke's latest foray into the limelight. But he has appeared at various public events.

Recently, Schmoke participated in the opening of the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel, a project conceived during his administration. And the Flag House Courts recently came tumbling down, fulfilling Schmoke's goal of making Baltimore the nation's first city to eliminate its high-rise housing projects.

Schmoke gives his successor, Mayor Martin O'Malley, good marks for "mayoring," which he defines as getting out and about in the city.

But he expressed concern about the city's finances, particularly the large raises given to the police and whether the city's $1.8 billion budget can handle them.

O'Malley, who as a city councilman sparred often and loudly with Schmoke administration officials, said he looks upon the Schmoke years much differently now that he has the job of running America's 16th-largest city.

"I gain more respect for him with each passing day," O'Malley said.

Sun staff writer Ann LoLordo contributed to this article.

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