Zollicoffer incident headed to state panel

Attorney grievance board is expected to look into interference with arrest

May 04, 2002|By Sarah Koenig, Kate Shatzkin and Del Quentin Wilber | Sarah Koenig, Kate Shatzkin and Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr.'s interference in a police investigation of his nephew Tuesday night is headed to the state board that disciplines lawyers, although legal experts say he is unlikely to face serious punishment.

Baltimore's police union filed a complaint yesterday asking the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission to investigate Zollicoffer, alleging that he "knowingly attempted to use the power of his position ... to hinder and interfere with a police investigation for the benefit of a family member."

The complaint does not address Zollicoffer's behavior during the past year at court proceedings for his nephew. The state's attorney's office said this week that on at least two occasions his conduct at such proceedings was "inappropriate."

Underscoring his public contrition since the Tuesday incident, Zollicoffer filed a companion letter to the official police complaint, saying he is willing to cooperate fully with the commission's work.

The commission has 90 days to complete its inquiry. During that time, Zollicoffer's duties will remain unchanged, the mayor's spokesman said.

Zollicoffer also met yesterday with the four officers involved in the investigation and arrest of Lawrence D. Hutchings, 22. Hutchings is accused of selling drugs to undercover policemen. Since Tuesday, Zollicoffer has apologized for challenging the officers' right to be at his nephew's house while they awaited a search warrant, and for comparing them to the Gestapo. Officers said Zollicoffer also threatened their jobs and used racially charged language - which Zollicoffer denies.

Mayor Martin O'Malley's office characterized the meeting between Zollicoffer and the officers as "positive." However, Gary McLhinney, president of the city's police union, called it a "by-the-book apology." The officers, he added, felt uncomfortable because Sean R. Malone, the departmental lawyer who investigates allegations of police misconduct, also attended.

"It really bothers me that he did not meet with those officers alone," McLhinney said. He plans on filing additional complaints against Zollicoffer with the city's ethics board and state prosecutor.

Generally, though, political tempers over the entire affair seemed to cool yesterday.

"We should be focusing on accountability, responsibility and rehabilitation for those who can benefit from it and not attempts to exonerate defendants from wrongdoing," city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said in a statement.

On Thursday, Jessamy's office criticized Zollicoffer for telling a circuit judge in open court that the defendant before the judge was Zollifcoffer's nephew. In another case, Zollicoffer warned a prosecutor after her closing arguments that he would be checking her work for prosecutorial misconduct.

Mayor backs review

After a phone conversation with Jessamy yesterday, O'Malley stopped just short of agreeing with Jessamy - a rarity in their usually prickly relationship.

"I would have been very uncomfortable if [the courtroom encounters] happened during the course of a case. I'm less uncomfortable that it happened after a case," he told reporters at an impromptu news conference at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, where the mayor was attending an annual ceremony for fallen police and firefighters.

Speaking of Zollicoffer's outburst Tuesday evening, O'Malley said he supported the grievance commission's review and looked forward to clearing up the incident.

"This has been hurtful to the officers and has ramifications for police-community relations," O'Malley said. "On behalf of everyone and this city administration, I want to apologize to the officers for the distractions it has caused."

Several top experts in legal ethics from around the country said yesterday that it was clear Zollicoffer's conduct Tuesday violated general rules of lawyer ethics. They called it an obvious conflict of interest, with Zollicoffer acting on behalf of his nephew at the same time he invoked his role as a lawyer for the city, including the Police Department.

"Quite beyond the pale and unacceptable," said Charles W. Wolfram, a Cornell University School of Law professor who has written textbooks on legal ethics.

"A very serious violation," Geoffrey C. Hazard Jr., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and an ethics expert, called it.

Chances of punishment

But experts had varying opinions - given the allegations against Zollicoffer concerning his courtroom conduct - about the punishment he might receive.

Stephen Gillers, vice dean of the New York University Law School and an expert in legal ethics, said disbarment or suspension for Tuesday's incident "would be totally disproportionate. Almost never is someone disbarred for a conflict."

Gillers said Zollicoffer would most likely be reprimanded.

But Monroe H. Freedman, former dean of the Hofstra University School of Law and a legal ethics professor, said a committee might suspend Zollicoffer from practicing because his alleged actions showed "a willingness to take advantage of his public position to advance private interest, and that's just wrong."

Sun staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this article.

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