Lawyer drops council clients

Attorney was hired by city after U.S. inquiry initiated

At least 4 officials are affected

Probe targets panel's political, financial dealings

July 19, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

One of two private attorneys hired to represent City Council members in a federal investigation of their financial and political dealings has dropped at least some of them as clients.

Several council members have said they are meeting individually with City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler this week to discuss new legal representation.

It was not clear if attorney Neal M. Janey, who was assigned 10 members of the 19-member council, continues to represent any of them. Janey did not return repeated phone messages seeking comment.

Some legal experts question why council members had group representation in the first place, given the potential for conflicts of interest. But attorney Larry Nathans continues to represent the nine other members he was assigned.

The city's Board of Estimates hired the two private attorneys in December to represent council members, authorizing legal expenses of up to $230,000.

Four of the 10 council members Janey represented said they have been dropped, while the rest declined to comment or could not be reached.

"We are in the midst of a federal investigation and at this time have no comment," said Caprece Jackson-Garrett, a spokeswoman for Council President Sheila Dixon, declining to say whether Dixon was still represented by Janey.

Tyler also declined to comment when asked which, if any council members, are still represented by Janey.

The changes in legal representation come as Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, whose office is conducting the investigation, has been criticized for recent e-mails urging prosecutors to pursue more convictions of elected officials and "front page" indictments.

But Janey notified council members that he was dropping them before controversy erupted around DiBiagio last week. Some council members said they received a letter from Janey late last month stating, without explanation, that he would no longer represent them.

Legal experts said there could be a variety of explanations for changing lawyers, ranging from Janey's personal or professional desire to bow out to the development of a conflict of interest in the case. The latter could occur if one client has information that could be damaging to another, but experts cautioned against jumping to the conclusion that council members are about to "roll over" on each other.

"If it is a potential conflict of interest, it's way too speculative to say, `Uh-oh, someone has something to hide,'" said Byron Warnken, a criminal defense attorney and professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

"It could be a lot of reasons," he said. "It could be someone pointing the finger at someone else, or there are some inconsistencies or gaps in the information where one person's story is not consistent with the other's. Recollections vary. I think a good lawyer isn't going to wait until there's a conflict of interest. A good lawyer will see the potential."

Warren Hamel, a white-collar criminal defense attorney at Venable LLP, said it is not unusual for an attorney to represent multiple clients in the same case as long as they are considered witnesses. But that cannot continue if one client emerges as the target of a criminal probe.

"As the investigation develops, both the prosecution and defense counsel will typically get a better sense of who's really in the crosshairs for prosecution and who's really just a witness, and then are there actual conflicts among your clients," said Hamel, who was speaking generally and has no connection to the case. "You don't have the witnesses and targets represented by the same person."

DiBiagio's office launched an investigation of the council after The Sun reported in July last year that members had hired relatives and accepted free parking passes from a company doing business with the city.

The city ethics board later found fault with that behavior, but some legal observers questioned whether it was criminal. The inquiry has since expanded to include the council's expense account system, Dixon's travel records and the city's dealings with minority developers.

Some council members have called the probe racially or politically motivated. All 19 members of the council are Democrats and the majority are black. DiBiagio is a white Republican.

Those complaints were renewed last week after The Sun reported that the prosecutor had pressured his staff for convictions of elected officials and indictments by November.

DiBiagio said in an interview Wednesday that the e-mails were simply used to motivate his staff and that he would never push his subordinates to do anything but "follow the facts and the law." But on Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice reprimanded DiBiagio and ordered him to submit any proposed indictments in public corruption cases to his superiors in Washington for review.

Despite the controversy, council members expect the investigation to continue. Several were subpoenaed in recent weeks to testify before a grand jury next month and in September, a council member said Friday.

Among the former Janey clients who plan to meet with Tyler to discuss their legal representation are Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector and Councilman Melvin L. Stukes.

"I know there's going to be a change," Stukes said. "I have no idea [why]."

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