Adviser's firm has big slice of city legal work

Gallagher, Evelius & Jones paid $296,335 this year

Second most for outside counsel

Berndt was O'Malley's top aide in '99 campaign

October 06, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A law firm run by Mayor Martin O'Malley's top campaign adviser, Richard O. Berndt, has become one of the top recipients of money from the city for legal work.

This year, the O'Malley administration has paid Berndt's firm, Gallagher, Evelius & Jones, the second most of any outside counsel, $296,335.

The firm of Cooper & Tuerk has been paid $315,988 this year for continuing work on a complex asbestos removal case that stretches back to 1984.

O'Malley said Berndt's key role in the 1999 mayoral campaign had nothing to do with City Solicitor Thurman Zollicoffer's decision to hire Berndt's firm to defend the city in new employment and environmental lawsuits.

"The only thing I told [Zollicoffer] with regard to Rick Berndt's firm is not to blackball the firm just because Rick was useful to me," said O'Malley. "I don't think the firm should be off-limits because of Rick's support, because it would deprive the city of good services from a good firm."

The city solicitor's office, which has 58 lawyers and a budget of $9 million, performs most of the city's legal services. But for highly specialized cases, or lawsuits deemed too time-consuming for the in-house staff, the city solicitor can use his discretion to pick outside firms to handle additional work.

Since at least World War II, Baltimore mayors have tended to hire lawyers who helped in their political campaigns to handle much of the city's outside legal work, said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"The bottom line for most mayors is that if you can get quality and get someone who is friendly to you, then what's wrong with that?" Schmoke said. "Very few people run for office to give discretionary money to their enemies."

Schmoke's administration was criticized in 1995 for paying $2.43 million in outside legal work over 4 1/2 years to the firm of his campaign treasurer, Ronald M. Shapiro.

Former Mayor William Donald Schaefer spread his legal work around, but he and Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III often hired Eugene M. Feinblatt, a political supporter.

And Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin supplied much work to William "Sweetie" Adelson, his lawyer, aide and political booster.

Berndt has been called the "political pope of Baltimore" because of the role he has played in advising O'Malley, many of the state's other Democratic leaders and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Working for the archdiocese, Berndt's firm arranged the recently publicized $3.5 million purchase of a historic apartment building at Charles and West Franklin streets for possible demolition to provide a better view of the nearby Basilica of the Assumption.

In a rare interview, Berndt said his firm's work for the O'Malley administration makes up about 2 percent of the firm's annual income. He said his firm has performed legal work for the city under mayors at least since McKeldin in the 1960s.

"We are not representing anyone new because O'Malley became mayor," said Berndt. "I don't think the mayor is going to pick lawyers based on political support."

Gallagher, Evelius & Jones performed no work for the city law department from 1997 (under Schmoke) through the end of 2000, and it was not among the top 35 recipients of work from the city from January 1991 to June 1995, receiving only $62,451 during those 4 1/2 years.

But Berndt noted that his firm earned hundreds of thousands of dollars working for the city's development agency, the Baltimore Development Corp., in the mid-1990s.

After O'Malley took office, Berndt's firm earned $110,408 from the city in 2001. This year, the firm has received $296,335, which is about 27 percent of the $1,089,386 paid by the city for outside legal work, with the city also using 12 other law firms.

In contrast to Berndt's office, Shapiro's firm -- which was the second-highest recipient of city legal work under Schmoke, behind Cooper, Beckman & Tuerk -- receives much less today, getting about a quarter as much under O'Malley as it did under Schmoke, and failing to place among the top five firms hired by the city this year. The firm's name and leadership have changed since the mid-1990s.

Cooper, Beckman & Tuerk (now Cooper & Tuerk) has for years received the most legal work from the city. For the past 18 years, the firm has been working on a complex asbestos case, trying to recover money the city has spent removing asbestos from public buildings.

Carl E. Tuerk Jr., managing partner of the firm, gave $2,000 to O'Malley's campaign fund in April, and his partner, Gerald H. Cooper, donated $100.

Berndt asked the attorneys in his office to support O'Malley's campaign, and 11 of them contributed a total of $14,355, including $4,000 by Berndt. His wife, Rita, also gave $3,000.

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