The city's Board of Estimates is set this morning to hire two attorneys -- for hourly rates up to $375 -- to assist City Council members with a pending federal probe into their finances, hiring practices and official dealings with two local businessmen.
The board, which sets the city's fiscal policy, is expected to authorize up to $230,000 for the legal expertise of Neal M. Janey and Larry A. Nathans, Baltimore attorneys experienced in high-profile grand jury investigations.
"This is no determination on my part whether [the federal investigation] is justified or if it's meritorious," said City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr., who is recommending the hiring of the lawyers. "My office is not equipped to deal with an investigation of this scale. To continue on would be a disservice to the council."
U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio has issued subpoenas to all 19 council members asking that the elected officials provide "all documents" concerning their financial, political and professional dealings dating back five years.
In addition, the subpoenas requested information on official actions related to two businessmen and their primary interests -- Ben Greenwald, vice president of Arrow Parking, and Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman of 1st Mariner Bank and owner of the Baltimore Blast indoor soccer team. Several subpoenas also requested all office expenses.
Council members who received their subpoenas Sept. 11 had until Oct. 18 to produce the requested documents. Council members who received subpoenas Oct. 31 had until Nov. 21.
Zollicoffer said his office helped most council members gather all the appropriate documents to comply with the subpoenas. He also said that several council members contacted Janey and Nathans on their own to ask for assistance.
"For something this serious, we want to make sure we're dotting our I's and crossing our T's," said council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake. "I'm an attorney, but I would still need help replying to a subpoena."
Janey is a former city solicitor and city District Court judge who helped Carroll County school officials during a 1999 grand jury probe by that county's state's attorney. Nathans led two significant legal victories this year: overturning a law banning walk-around money for campaign workers, and freeing a man falsely imprisoned for 27 years in a murder.
Janey could not be reached for comment. Nathans, past president of the Maryland Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he specialized in defending against grand jury investigations.
The Board of Estimates' agenda states that Janey and Nathans are being hired to represent "one or more council members, and possibly other city personnel."
Zollicoffer said that was no indication anyone other than council members has received a subpoena. He said the wording left room for Janey and Nathans to represent other city employees if DiBiagio widens his investigation.
The five-member board will vote on two separate contracts. Janey and Nathans would each be authorized to charge up to $115,000. The proposal allows each attorney to bill up to $15,000 in expenses and up to $100,000 for hourly legal services. Janey's hourly rate is $375, which would translate into approximately 33 eight-hour work days. Nathan's hourly rate is $275, which would translate into approximately 45 eight-hour work days.
"I don't suspect they'll even come close to spending that much," Zollicoffer said.
Zollicoffer added that his office lacks the resources to provide council members with assistance in dealing with an investigation that could last months.
Most council members said they believed the subpoenas were fueled by articles in The Sun reporting that 10 council members have hired relatives and that all have accepted free passes to Arrow Parking garages. Nearly all said they also received passes to events at the Baltimore Zoo, 1st Mariner Arena and the Senator Theatre.
The city's Board of Ethics ruled in October that council members violated ethics rules by accepting the free parking passes. In addition, the panel said three council members who hired siblings as assistants -- John L. Cain, Pamela V. Carter and council President Sheila Dixon -- breached ethics rules. Dixon and Carter fired their siblings last month. Cain declines to speak to The Sun.
Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young defended council members against the appearance of allegations in the subpoenas, saying that the hiring of outside lawyers was a waste.
"If you haven't done anything wrong, you don't have to worry about representation," Young said. "That money could be spent other places."
Rawlings Blake differed with her colleague.
"It's often said that the innocent need competent attorneys more than the guilty," she said.
James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, an ethics watchdog organization, said taxpayers would not be faced with paying for the council's lawyer fees if the city solicitor's office and ethics officials had more power to keep council members' actions in check.
"It wasn't the taxpayers who broke the rules and hired their relatives," Browning said. "It would set a dangerous precedent if they got to use taxpayer money every time they needed help with their defense."
Zollicoffer said hiring lawyers was necessary to make sure the council continued to cooperate appropriately with DiBiagio.
"These are good, everyday public servants," Zollicoffer said. "It's unnerving, to say the least, to receive a subpoena from the Justice Department."