Zollicoffer had built an image as a forthright professional

As prosecutor, partner in law firm, solicitor, he was `decisive,' `confident'

May 02, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein and Michael James | Gady A. Epstein and Michael James,SUN STAFF

As the top lawyer at City Hall, Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. has developed a reputation as decisive and forthright, sometimes unconcerned about bruising feelings or egos, and fiercely protective of his friends and family - all qualities that may have gotten him into trouble Tuesday night.

Zollicoffer, 39, is one of Mayor Martin O'Malley's trusted advisers, a lifelong Baltimorean who left a high-paying law partnership in 1999 to find himself in the center of major legal battles and some touchy political ones.

"I rely on him day in and day out," said O'Malley, a friend since their University of Maryland School of Law days in the mid-1980s. "On any major issue, he's at the table."

Until this week, Zollicoffer appeared to fill the role strictly according to script, taking care to project an above-board, in-control image of professionalism to the extent that he has even advised underlings not to drink in public for fear of making a bad impression.

It's an image he cultivated in his years since law school, as a prosecutor in the Baltimore state's attorney's office - where his friendship with O'Malley grew closer in the late 1980s - then as a lawyer and, eventually, partner at the noted Baltimore firm of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.

"He is decisive," said Wilbur D. Preston Jr., a partner in the firm. "He's such a solid guy. Tells it like it is when he talks to you ... Very competent and confident of his own competence."

Zollicoffer's career as a lawyer took on a brief spurt of public prominence in late 1992, when he and a partner prosecuted Dontay Carter, then one of Baltimore's most notorious killers. Zollicoffer, paired on the case with veteran city prosecutor Vickie L. Wash, helped to convict Carter of charges relating to a racially motivated murder and kidnapping spree.

By the mid-1990s, Zollicoffer had switched from prosecutor to defense attorney at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston. Among his clients was PrimeHealth Corp., a health care firm accused of bribing former state Sen. Larry Young. Young was acquitted in the matter and PrimeHealth was never charged.

When O'Malley was elected in December 1999, he called on Zollicoffer for the $117,600-a-year post, a substantial pay cut from Zollicoffer's job at Whiteford, Taylor. "As a friend, he was also somebody that was never afraid to give me his honest opinion, whether it was something that would rub me the wrong way or not," O'Malley said. "And that's something that becomes even more valuable and rare when you get elected mayor."

Zollicoffer didn't waste any time in rearranging the solicitor's office. He fired several attorneys he felt weren't pulling their weight, including the heads of the law department's employment and worker's compensation divisions. Two of those firings led to an employment discrimination lawsuit that was dismissed earlier this year, a ruling that the plaintiffs are appealing.

"There are bound to be some people who don't like him, because he took a hard-line approach," said a veteran attorney who predates Zollicoffer in the 70-attorney solicitor's office, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But we had dead wood. We had people who weren't doing their job. Thurman brought ideas to the office. He wanted us to become like a high-powered private law firm."

One of Zollicoffer's restructurings was a team approach to working litigation. Separate litigation teams now set up within the office regularly meet to discuss ways to tackle cases, and at times, as many as eight attorneys have been assigned to work a single high-priority case.

In a little more than two years, he has shepherded a series of important legal matters, most notably an overhaul of the city's minority business participation policies in O'Malley's first year in office, an issue that Zollicoffer takes particular pride in overseeing to this day.

He also has come to the mayor's aid on political matters, including the appointment of Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris in 2000 to succeed an ousted African-American commissioner.

"He's been at my side whenever the stuff has hit the fan, as invariably it does," O'Malley said. "He's been in the thick of every fight that we had to make in this administration."

Now, Zollicoffer is in the thick of a fight literally of his own making. Many, like O'Malley, says his behavior toward police officers who had arrested his nephew Tuesday night was an "aberration," while calling him a proud family man, a husband and father of a young baby son.

In addressing the media yesterday, Zollicoffer explained his behavior not only as the actions of an overly protective family member, but also as an African-American man with a special sensitivity to law enforcement. Moments later, he noted his race in refusing to be interviewed for this article.

"I'm not doing it. The Sun just kills black men. I'm not doing it," Zollicoffer said.

His sometimes combative comments yesterday reinforce the view in the eyes of some that Zollicoffer is not shy about making his presence felt. Standing more than 6 feet tall, he is described by a few as having a forceful - and at times intimidating - personality; most say he is confident and direct.

His self-assurance is on weekly display at meetings of the Board of Estimates, the city's powerful decision-making body. He is comfortable assuming the assertive role in many contested matters and leaves little doubt about his feelings on any subject he addresses.

"He's the type of person who doesn't pull punches, and for me that's something I respect. You know exactly where he's coming from," said Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a West Baltimore Democrat. "He's not worried about hurting feelings. He's worried about getting the job done."

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