Zollicoffer to leave city solicitor's post

Departure: A key adviser to Mayor Martin O'Malley is leaving City Hall on May 1 to return to private law practice.

April 07, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Surrounded by portraits of past city solicitors gazing down at him from the walls of his Victorian-style office in City Hall - many of them white men in handlebar mustaches and bushy beards - Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. pointed at the pictures of the city's first black solicitors.

"Before I took office, I sat down with these two gentlemen to find out what the job was like," Zollicoffer, the city's top lawyer since 1999, said of George L. Russell and Benjamin Brown, who held the job back-to-back from 1968 to 1987.

"They said, `Protect the mayor. Loyalty is the highest premium,' " Zollicoffer recalled. "That's the job. And I hope that I've done it well. ... Every day is constant crisis management."

Zollicoffer, 41, confirmed yesterday that he would leave the solicitor's office May 1 to return to private practice with his former law firm, Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP, where he served as partner from 1994 to 1999. He said he longs for the more sane schedule and higher pay of private practice.

A longtime friend of Mayor Martin O'Malley who worked with him as a prosecutor in the early 1990s, Zollicoffer was appointed city solicitor in one of the mayor's first moves after being elected in 1999. He became one of O'Malley's closest advisers and a powerful, outspoken, aggressive player in City Hall, according to those who know him.

"Thurman and I have known each other since law school, although he attended class more often than I did, which is why we made him city solicitor and not me," O'Malley said. "He's been a friend and a confidant who's been at my side through every crisis I've faced. I'm really grateful to him, but he only promised me one term of service."

During O'Malley's four years in office, trouble has swirled through City Hall. The mayor has had success fighting crime and fending off a state takeover of city schools, but he has also faced budget cuts, layoffs and the conviction of Edward T. Norris, the former police commissioner, on federal corruption charges. Through it all, O'Malley has leaned on Zollicoffer.

"The mayor only takes advice from a very small number of people in his administration, and Zollicoffer is one of them," said City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. "He's the consigliere for the mayor - the man who really knows what's going on."

The mayor said he doesn't know who he will pick as Zollicoffer's replacement. When he leaves, Deputy City Solicitor Donald R. Huskey will serve as acting city solicitor until a permanent choice has been made.

Among the highlights of Zollicoffer's four-year tenure was the Oct. 23, 2003, dismissal of a federal lawsuit brought by the Associated Utility Contractors of Maryland that challenged O'Malley's goal of setting aside contracts for firms owned by women and minorities.

"There are a lot of cities all across America that have given up on their [minority contracting] programs, because they didn't think they could be defended," said O'Malley. "So for us to successfully defend ours has really been a big win."

A rough spot came in May 2002, when the city's police union filed a complaint against Zollicoffer for trying to interfere with officers who were trying to arrest his nephew on drug charges. Some officers at the time said Zollicoffer threatened their jobs and accused them of using "Gestapo" tactics.

"We obviously have had our differences with Mr. Zollicoffer," said Dan Fickus, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3. "I believe his conduct that day was really uncalled for."

Zollicoffer apologized, and the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission declined to take action against him.

Because he regards himself as a team player, Zollicoffer did not protest when the mayor's budget-cutting ax fell hard on his department The law department's budget has been cut from $9.9 million in fiscal year 1999 to a proposed $6.7 million in fiscal year 2005, and a staff of 85 attorneys has shrunk to 53.

During the same time, the number of lawsuits filed against the city rose slightly to more than 3,500 last year. But the total paid out by the city to settle claims fell, from $2.4 million in fiscal 2000 to $1.6 million last year, Zollicoffer said.

Looking to the future, Zollicoffer dismissed the possibility that he might run for political office.

"I think I've had my fill of politics," he said.

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