Officials knew of attorney's private law work

In 2004, City Council President Dixon pledged to investigate Kim Y. Johnson handling legal cases during work hours

March 05, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Officials knew as early as 2004 that a city attorney was handling private legal cases during work hours, with then-City Council President Sheila Dixon pledging to investigate.

The attorney, Kim Y. Johnson, continued to represent dozens of clients in bankruptcy matters and would eventually be promoted to a command staff position with the Baltimore Police Department, making $94,400 a year. She handled criminal and civil cases from across the region, including one in which a man had been charged by city police.

A police spokesman has said the department is investigating. Dixon spokesman Scott Peterson said the mayor would not comment while the investigation is ongoing.

The police union is calling for Johnson to step down from her position as head of the department's equal employment opportunity compliance division while police investigate.

"If, in fact, Ms. Johnson has been defending criminals on her own time and company time, she should do the right thing for the agency and step down and turn [her responsibilities] over to one of her subordinates who can take the reins while the investigation proceeds," said Robert F. Cherry Jr., president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

The Baltimore Sun reported yesterday that Johnson, who joined the city as an attorney in 2004, has represented suspects charged with theft, destruction of property and drug offenses while employed by the Police Department.

Additionally, federal court records show she has handled more than 100 bankruptcy proceedings, including 19 in 2008. Nearly all were filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Johnson declined to comment when questioned by a reporter Monday.

City officials have apparently been aware of Johnson's private legal work for years. In 2004, WMAR-TV raised questions about city attorneys handling cases on the side, including a "city attorney who filed 22 bankruptcies in her first six months on the job."

The station didn't name Johnson in its story, but the reporter, Darryn Moore, who now works for a station in Atlanta, said this week that he presented city officials with time sheets suggesting she worked a second job on the city clock. In one case, she signed in for work at 8:30 a.m. and signed out at 4:30 p.m. But federal records show she represented a client in bankruptcy court that day.

Then-City Solicitor Ralph Tyler said he was "confident" that the work wasn't being done on company time.

"What concerns me is they're doing it in the midst of the time they're serving the city," Dixon told WMAR. "In the meantime, we can't have that practice going on."

Dixon said at the time that she would ask two council committees to investigate, but Peterson said the committees did not follow up on the request. Records indicate that Johnson continued to handle cases that had been filed prior to the report but filed just two new bankruptcy claims over the next two years. She continued to handle civil cases and later took up more bankruptcy and criminal defense work.

Robert Grossbart, an attorney who blogs about bankruptcy issues, said a typical bankruptcy attorney can stay busy with 20 cases a month, and the court time per case is often minimal. But he said it would be difficult to balance bankruptcy cases with a full-time job.

"With a 40-hour-a-week job, it's going to be hard for them," Grossbart said. "I would think that you'd have to meet clients after hours, on Saturdays, in coffee shops."

The issue of city solicitors maintaining private law practices dates to 1989, when the city solicitor at the time, Neal Janey, contemplated a ban on private practices. He told City Council members at a public hearing, "I want my people to use this job to serve the public, not supplement a private practice."

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