O'Malley fumes over ACLU fees

Housing agency, city must pay $1.1 million for legal costs in suit

`It makes me really sick'

Group says mayor deflecting blame for housing woes

March 28, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley criticized the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday, angered that the city and its housing authority must pay $1.1 million in fees related to the group's public housing discrimination lawsuit.

The verbal barrage occurred moments before the Board of Estimates approved payment of the legal fees, which a federal judge last month ordered the city to pay.

O'Malley railed against "elitist, liberal, arrogant lawyers," wondering aloud "how they sleep at night." He said "it makes me really sick" that the money would "enrich" lawyers rather than being spent on public housing residents.

Susan Goering, the Maryland ACLU executive director, said later that O'Malley was trying to deflect attention from another issue: a judge's recent finding that the city has been "sluggish" in giving public housing residents a chance to live in largely white, middle-class neighborhoods.

"It's always hard when you're a public official [and] have a court say you haven't complied with the Constitution and you're still not," Goering said. "Some public officials handle that with more grace than others."

Goering, who did not attend the meeting, said the city has paid its private lawyers more than $2 million since the ACLU filed the class action suit on behalf of public housing residents in 1995. The ACLU and two law firms are to receive an interim payment of $542,000 from the city, $542,000 from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and another $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Until now, Goering said, the ACLU has not gotten "one copper penny" from the city since it began looking into public housing conditions in the 1980s. Money being paid by the city to the ACLU will go into the group's litigation fund. O'Malley's comments marked the latest skirmish in the long battle over how to rectify decades of segregation in housing for the city's poorest residents.

The two sides reached a partial settlement in 1996 but have been at odds over implementation. The rest of the case remains unresolved and, despite settlement talks, both sides say a trial is a possibility.

In any event, the city's costs will only go up. "It's going to get more costly," said City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. in a session before the formal Board of Estimates meeting.

Under the settlement, nearly 2,200 special rent-subsidy certificates were to have been provided by now to help disperse the poor throughout the region. Progress has been "sluggish," U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm wrote in December. Many public housing residents still live among the poverty that spurred the lawsuit.

Where the blame lies is disputed. The ACLU says the city is not moving fast enough, while the city says its foes have blocked or delayed projects such as the Heritage Crossing development now rising on the site of the former Murphy Homes housing complex in West Baltimore.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano told the mayor yesterday that the ACLU turned down a final settlement offer "hands down" and walked away from the table. But the city's idea of a settlement is to say "trust us," said Andrew D. Freeman, a lawyer working with the ACLU.

Despite O'Malley's comments, Zollicoffer said the city has not fulfilled some promises made in the partial consent decree. "Our hands are not clean," he said. And City Council President Sheila Dixon said, "All of us to some degree are at fault."

In 2000, plans to relocate 15 families to Northeast Baltimore -- a move that would have helped to satisfy the settlement terms -- sparked a loud protest from residents there. A few months later, city officials said they were no longer interested in buying the properties.

Yesterday the mayor repeatedly criticized the fee award. "It goes into enriching the ACLU, who I doubt very seriously has met the class they purport to represent," he said.

Freeman agreed the money could be better spent on public housing. But he said, "Neither the city nor HUD has been willing to take seriously their obligations to fix the results of decades of discrimination."

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