Paying of legal fees resisted

Ehrlich's counsel against reimbursing ex-official who was cleared of charges

December 23, 2005|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

The governor's chief lawyer is opposing efforts to reimburse former state official Stephen P. Amos nearly $200,000 in legal fees, even though Amos was cleared of charges brought during a high-profile federal criminal investigation.

Jervis S. Finney, the governor's legal counsel, has told the Maryland attorney general's office that he is against reimbursing Amos because he thinks the charges against him were justified, according to records released yesterday.

The attorney general's office conducted a review and has recommended that Amos be paid for the legal fees he incurred during a public corruption investigation that began in the midst of the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, in which Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was opposed by Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

The investigation, which was criticized for its election year timing, was led by a Republican U.S. attorney who was appointed with the sponsorship of Ehrlich, then a congressman.

E-mails released by the state yesterday show that Finney has questioned the decision by federal prosecutors this year to withdraw their indictment.

Amos, who headed the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention during the Glendening administration, had been charged with using federal crime-fighting grant money for improper administrative expenses.

Referring to new evidence that they said would make it difficult to win a conviction, federal prosecutors withdrew the charges in January. Since then, Amos has won a court order expunging the records of his arrest and indictment.

The dismissal of the charges set the stage for Amos to seek reimbursement for the legal fees that he had accrued over more than three years.

State law allows public employees to seek recovery of legal expenses in cases involving the performance of their public duties.

In e-mails sent during the summer and fall, Finney made it clear to Assistant Attorney General Margaret Ann Nolan that he did not think Amos should be reimbursed for his legal fees.

In a July 6 e-mail, Finney, a former U.S. attorney, wrote that any "independent observer" would have to question whether the decision by federal prosecutors to drop the charges was justified.

He also referred to what he described as a "secret scheme" to use grant funds for employees engaged in work for Townsend that was not related to crime-fighting efforts.

He also pointed to a federal audit that questioned some expenses of the crime-control office during Amos' tenure as executive director.

"It should be said likely that we would feel, on full review, that reimbursement would be totally unjustified," Finney wrote.

The attorney general's office released the e-mails and other records yesterday in response to requests made by The Sun under the state's Public Information Act.

Nolan said in an interview that her office had found after thorough investigation that Amos met the legal requirements for reimbursement. In September, she recommended to the state Board of Public Works that he be reimbursed.

The matter was handled no differently from a half-dozen similar cases that the attorney general's office has handled in the past 10 years, Nolan said.

Responding to Finney's e-mails opposing the payments, Nolan said, "He seems to believe what he believes, but he's provided me with nothing to support that with. Any objective observer would be hard pressed to say that we had done anything other than a thorough investigation."

The results of that investigation were not available because Ehrlich administration officials refused to waive attorney-client privilege to allow the release of the report by the attorney general's office.

Finney did not respond to telephone calls yesterday seeking comment.

The Ehrlich administration has kept the issue of reimbursing Amos for his legal fees from being placed on the agenda of the three-member Board of Public Works.

A spokesman for Ehrlich said yesterday that the governor thinks the matter "deserves serious scrutiny" and that his staff is reviewing it. He said "there is no timeline as of now" for when the issue might be put on the agenda of the Board of Public Works.

Ehrlich serves on the board along with two Democrats, state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

A spokesman for Schaefer said he was not available for comment. Kopp said she thinks Amos' case should be brought before the board and treated the same way similar cases have been.

"If this has gone through the process and the attorney general says Mr. Amos has acted in good faith and ought to be reimbursed, it's an appropriate thing to be put before the board," Kopp said.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Finney appears to be taking a partisan approach to something that should not be a partisan issue.

"Right is right, regardless of whether you are Democrat or Republican," said Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat. "If he [Amos] has been exonerated, then I think the right thing for the Board of Public Works to do is to give him a hearing."

Gregg Bernstein, Amos' attorney, said Finney is entitled to his opinion but noted that his client has been cleared of wrongdoing at every turn.

"The attorney general's office ... has certified to the Board of Public Works that Mr. Amos acted in good faith in the performance of his duties," Bernstein said. "We would hope that the board would follow the recommendation of the attorney general's office and approve these fees."

Amos has said that the lengthy investigation took a heavy personal toll, forcing him to sell property, spend retirement savings and borrow from relatives. He said yesterday that he found Finney's comments offensive.

"It's like saying, `Even though your case was dismissed and not only that has been expunged, I still think you're guilty,'" Amos said.

"By what rights does Jervis Finney make these assessments?"

greg.garland@baltsun.com

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