Bad timing

Our view: Mayor Dixon's indictment raises questions about the city's practice of paying legal fees for city workers who have been involved in criminal cases

January 24, 2009

Timing is everything. And now is not the time for Baltimore officials to enact a law that would allow for the payment of legal fees for city employees cleared of criminal charges. The reason is this: Mayor Sheila Dixon and Councilwoman Helen L. Holt have been indicted on criminal charges as a result of a political corruption investigation. Such new legislation or any change in the city's practice would be self-serving and not in the public's interest.

After ducking reporters for two days, Mayor Sheila Dixon had something to say about research city Solicitor George A. Nilson was conducting on this very issue: "I have not seen the extent of Mr. Nilson's findings nor do I believe that a new policy is necessary." A new policy suggests one in fact exists. Baltimore has paid out legal fees for some city employees but on an ad hoc basis, and Ms. Dixon's circumstance is very different.

The state has had a law since 1982 that allows state employees who have been acquitted of a crime to seek repayment of their legal defense bills if they were acting in good faith in carrying out their duties when they were charged or indicted. Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties have similar laws or policies, and Maryland's highest court, in a 1983 ruling on Anne Arundel's law covering public safety employees, upheld the repayment of legal fees as a "protection" for employees, "who by the nature of their calling are uniquely at risk of suffering financial liability as a result of their duties."

FOR THE RECORD - City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton's name was misspelled in an editorial Saturday. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

Mr. Nilson began researching this issue last summer as state prosecutors were issuing subpoenas on Mayor Dixon and others. He found that the city had paid for lawyers for city employees who were subpoenaed as witnesses or asked to produce documents in connection with a criminal prosecution. But the handful of cases were related to the federal probe of former Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, and none of those city employees, according to Mr. Nilson, was ever charged with a crime.

The city's decision to pay for outside legal counsel then was appropriate for this reason: The city solicitor's office had a conflict, its lawyers were defending other city employees involved in the case.

That's a very different scenario than the one involving the mayor or Councilwoman Holt. An ad hoc policy is not the way to deal with a matter as sensitive as this. Changing the city's practice or adopting a new law that could potentially benefit Ms. Dixon also would be wrong. That surely qualifies as an appearance of a conflict, if not the real thing.

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