Outside law work questioned

Top city police employee's practice is investigated

March 04, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

A top official in the Baltimore Police Department has been defending suspects in court cases and has handled more than 100 bankruptcy proceedings since joining the city five years ago, The Baltimore Sun has learned.

Kim Y. Johnson, director of the department's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has represented at least one man who faced drug charges filed by city police. In other instances, she represented clients in cases as far away as St. Mary's County.

And federal bankruptcy records show that she has filed nearly 60 cases since 2004 and followed through with about 50 that had been filed before her employment with the city.

Johnson's city job puts her in charge of investigating race discrimination complaints within the Police Department. She reports to Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and was paid $85,000 last year by the city.

Johnson refused to answer questions or confirm her work on the cases. "If it's in the records, it's in the records," she said.

Anthony Guglielmi, a police spokesman, confirmed that Bealefeld was "made aware of her legal clients in January" and said an internal investigation had been initiated but that the department could not comment further.

"The commissioner holds a high level of trust in his command staff," Guglielmi said. "If that trust is violated, it's not going to be taken lightly by him or by this department."

Court documents show that Johnson, who is licensed to perform bankruptcy and defense litigation work, has represented suspects charged with theft over $500, destruction of property and drug offenses since she went to work for the Baltimore police.

She has also represented clients in bankruptcy cases, foreclosures, civil lawsuits, divorces, custody and contract disputes and visitation hearings. She has handled cases in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties.

It was not clear yesterday whether department rules cover such outside legal work. Guglielmi, noting the investigation, declined to say whether Bealefeld had given her approval to handle cases as a private attorney.

Johnson's salary was $94,400 in fiscal 2008, though records show she was paid $85,000. According to the Maryland State Bar Association and court records, she also runs a private practice in Laurel.

Most of her private legal work has been in bankruptcy court, but records indicate that she has taken on at least six criminal cases.

In the Baltimore drug case, she represented John Coates-Harris, who was arrested after a Jan. 19, 2008, traffic stop in which two officers, police say, found 56 grams of suspected marijuana in plain view and a digital scale, plastic bags and more marijuana in a center console. Coates-Harris was arrested and charged with drug possession, but prosecuttors dropped the case March 5.

Johnson also represented Coates-Harris when he was charged a second time with drug distribution in Baltimore County. She withdrew her representation Jan. 12, saying she needed an additional $1,500 retainer to continue working on the case. A Jan. 29 hearing in his case was postponed because Coates-Harris did not have representation, according to records.

Johnson has worked for the Police Department since 2006; before that she was employed as a city attorney assigned to work on issues related to the Police Department.

The circumstances of her hiring are at issue in a federal lawsuit filed by a former city attorney, who alleges his firing was based on his race and his questioning of the way equal employment opportunity cases were handled. In the complaint, Howard B. Hoffman alleges that he was fired to make room for Johnson.

Senior District Court Judge William M. Nickerson wrote in a Jan. 21 memorandum that the case could proceed because the circumstances leading to Johnson's hiring were unusual and "could lead a [judge or jury] to conclude that [Hoffman] was fired to make way for her hiring."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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