City hires 2 attorneys to represent council members being investigated

Board of Estimates allows $230,000 for U.S. probe

December 11, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The city's Board of Estimates hired two prominent defense attorneys yesterday to advise City Council members during a wide-ranging federal probe into their official and personal finances.

The board's decision yesterday authorized the lawyers -- Neal M. Janey and Larry A. Nathans -- to charge up to $230,000 in legal costs and expenses related to U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio's investigation into the council.

The hiring of Janey, a former city solicitor and District Court judge, and Nathans, past president of the Maryland Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, coincided with DiBiagio's indictment of state police Superintendent and former city Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris on public corruption charges.

Some political observers questioned using taxpayer money to defend council members, while others said the politicians should not have to tap their personal resources.

Hiring outside counsel is permitted under the city charter at the city solicitor's request and with the approval of the Board of Estimates, which sets Mayor Martin O'Malley's fiscal policies.

"You can't expect them to hire personal counsel to defend themselves for something they did while doing their jobs that may or may not turn out to be illegal," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor. "Still, it doesn't look good."

Since Sept. 11, DiBiagio has issued subpoenas compelling all 19 council members to produce documents related to their financial, political and professional dealings dating back five years -- including gifts, hiring practices and outside income.

City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. said his department is versed in civil, not criminal, law and cannot handle such a broad probe.

The board's decision allows Janey and Nathans each to bill up to $100,000 in hourly legal services and $15,000 in expenses. Janey's hourly rate is $375; Nathan's is $275.

"I do not expect [Janey and Nathans] to come close to that amount," Zollicoffer said at the board's meeting. "Unless, of course, they're all indicted."

Mitchell Klein, head of the political action group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, objected to such costly counsel. "The public defender can handle the situation," Klein said.

Zollicoffer said council members would have to hire personal attorneys if DiBiagio's investigation leads to allegations of illegal behavior. If that happens, said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, council members should reimburse the city for legal expenses.

"Is it the city's responsibility to shepherd the council members through a trial?" Browning said. "That's insanity."

Councilman Edward L. Reisinger said DiBiagio should be held to the same standard.

"If DiBiagio doesn't [discover] anything [illegal], he should reimburse the city," Reisinger said.

Council members are already using the new legal help. In declining to answer questions about the board's action yesterday, council president and chairwoman of the Board of Estimates Sheila Dixon said, "You'll have to talk to my attorney."

She did, however, respond to a question about DiBiagio's investigation: "Ultimately, it is going to be a useless exercise."

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