City to pay $200,000 in secret settlement

Unidentified plaintiff had sued police department

March 13, 2010|By Justin Fenton |

The city Board of Estimates this week approved a secret $200,000 settlement to a person who had sued the Baltimore Police Department, saying the terms and name would be kept confidential to avoid "unfair damage to the career and reputation of the plaintiff."

Officials disclosed the amount Friday and said that the figure was wrongly left off the agenda by the comptroller's office. But George Nilson, the city solicitor, provided the amount and said the city agreed not to discuss the details of case. He called the secret nature of the settlement "extreme" but with good reason.

"It was an honest mistake, quite clearly, that resulted in unfortunate and unintended harm to a citizen's reputation," Nilson said. "The community reached a cruelly wrong conclusion about this individual, based on this mistake, and this individual was harmed in personal and professional ways. I'm just not going to participate in furthering that unfortunate harm."

Nilson said in his three years as city solicitor, such a private settlement was a first, and he did not anticipate the city handling future claims in a similar manner. He also said the plaintiff was not a city resident, but he declined to provide additional details, citing the settlement agreement.

The five-member board approved the payout at its meeting Wednesday. The board meets weekly to approve city spending, including legal settlement payments.Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, said the plaintiff "demanded confidentiality as part of the settlement agreement. Had we not provided that, the cost of the settlement may very well have been higher."

"We've attempted to provide as much transparency as possible within the confines" of the settlement, he said.

Nilson said there was no stipulation that the amount be withheld. He said the office of Comptroller Joan M. Pratt had decided to keep the exact total off the agenda after he told them of the sensitive nature of the case. But he said the amount should be disclosed.

"You are entitled to know the amount instead of a mystery figure. We spent public money, and you're entitled to know that," he said.

A representative for Pratt said she was unavailable, and City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young, a voting member of the board, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

In 1997, the city attempted to keep secret the details of a $500,000 settlement with the family of a man shot by police at Lexington Market. The Baltimore Sun sued, and the Court of Appeals ordered that the agreement be disclosed. In that case, the judge had sealed records and closed hearings.

A. Dwight Pettit, a defense attorney who represented the family in that lawsuit, said confidentiality helped resolve the lawsuit. Pettit said the city benefited as well, given that the amount of the payout was later subject to criticism.

"That came back to haunt them on several occasions," he said.

Defense attorney Warren Brown said cases that involve large payouts should be subject to public scrutiny and the wishes of the plaintiff should be superseded by the public's right to know.

"Isn't the mayor and everybody talking about transparency? I want to know how much I'm paying, and I deserve to know what went wrong," Brown said. "Who cares about [the plaintiff's] feelings?"

Neal M. Janey, a former city solicitor, said the settlement amount should be disclosed but that "there could be legitimate reasons for keeping the name of the party confidential."

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