Double dipping?

Our view: City job should serve public, not supplement lawyer's private practice

March 09, 2009

We have just one question for Kim Y. Johnson, the Baltimore Police Department official who has been representing criminal suspects and shepherding clients through bankruptcy for years: How do you find time to defend alleged drug dealers, thieves and deadbeat debtors while doing the city's business?

Last week, The Baltimore Sun's Justin Fenton reported that Ms. Johnson, who earned $85,000 in 2008 from her police job investigating racial discrimination complaints in the department, also has a private practice defending people charged with serious crimes by her police colleagues.

Lawyers in the city solicitor's office, where Ms. Johnson worked before joining the Police Department, traditionally have been allowed to have private practices on the side and on their own time. But in recent years, lawyers there have been strongly discouraged from accepting private clients except under very limited circumstances, and ethics rules prohibit them from representing clients in cases against the city.

As a Police Department employee, Ms. Johnson is not bound by those rules, but her private criminal defense practice still raises serious ethical issues since it pits her against the interests of her own department.

One of her clients, for example, was arrested last year after city police found 56 grams of suspected marijuana in his car. But Ms. Johnson succeeded in getting the charges dropped.

Records also show Ms. Johnson handled more than 100 bankruptcy proceedings in recent years, 22 of which were filed in her first six months on the job. It's unclear whether the city had claims against any of those debtors, which would have represented a conflict of interest under city law department rules. What's clear is that the sheer volume of cases made them practically a full-time job.

It seems unlikely anyone could juggle so many balls without letting at least some of those private cases spill over onto city payroll time. Are we really supposed to believe Ms. Johnson handled everything on lunch breaks and vacations?

None of this passes the smell test. Though the city law department has written ethical guidelines, the rules are fuzzier for Police Department lawyers because they often depend on informal agreements between the commissioner and his staff.

The department needs to clear the air by showing exactly when and where Ms. Johnson spent her time on the job. Only then can the public compare the data against all those hours she spent pleading private cases and decide whether she's really been earning her city salary.

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