Over attorney's protests, Baltimore defends secrecy in wrongful arrest settlement

Lawyer says city officials misrepresented confidentiality agreement in wrongful arrest

December 22, 2010|By Julie Scharper and Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore officials paid a $200,000 settlement to a distinguished violinist who had been wrongly arrested on child abuse charges and withheld his name, citing his desire for confidentiality, but the man's attorney says it was the city — not his client — who requested secrecy.

Yakov Y. Shapiro, a musician and teacher, filed suit against the city after he was jailed for 40 hours on child abuse allegations because of a police clerical error. Officers issued a warrant for the Germantown man although they had been seeking a Baltimore man named Yisroel Shapiro, who is three years younger and 9 inches taller.

On Wednesday, city officials disputed the attorney's claims and said they acted in an effort to protect Yakov Shapiro. The details of the settlement were first reported by The Daily Record after a months-long investigation.

"My information, and I have no reason to doubt it, was that [the confidentiality agreement] was in there at the insistence of the plaintiff or the plaintiff's lawyer," said City Solicitor George Nilson. "My understanding was that he was relieved that there was not further publicity around the lawsuit when it was published."

"If the only purpose is to protect the city from embarrassment, that's not in my judgment a sufficient reason" to not disclose the name," said Nilson. "That was not the purpose here."

But Steven D. Kupferberg, an attorney for Yakov Shapiro, said he was surprised to spot the confidentiality clause in the written agreement because city officials had not discussed it in the meeting in which they hammered out the settlement deal.

"I wrote back to [Assistant City Solicitor Neal M. Janey Jr.] and said that wasn't part of our discussion and we would rather not enter into that type of agreement," Kupferberg said. "He said we had to go with his wording or the case wouldn't settle."

In March, when the city's spending board — which includes Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young — approved the settlement, a mayoral spokesman told The Baltimore Sun that the plaintiff "demanded confidentiality as part of the settlement agreement."

"We've attempted to provide as much transparency as possible within the confines" of the agreement, Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said at the time.

O'Doherty did not answer questions Wednesday about whether city officials misrepresented or were misinformed about the details of the settlement, saying in a statement only that it was "undeniable" that the plaintiff's attorney had agreed to and signed the settlement.

"The entire Board of Estimates, including three independently elected officials, approved the agreement in the interest of protecting the claimant from further harm," he said. "The solicitor believes that protecting the claimant was an entirely appropriate objective and has no second thoughts."

Former U.S. Attorney for Maryland and former state Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs said he saw no justification for withholding information about such a large city expenditure.

"I don't care who asks for it. A settlement of that sort … the public has a right to know the facts of how $200,000 is being spent and to whom and why," Sachs said. "To me, that's self-evident. It's irrelevant whether the motive was to protect the victim at his request or whether the motive was to protect a policeman who blundered.

"Those things, to me, are and ought to be irrelevant," he said. "The public has a right to know how its money is being spent. End of story."

Pratt said she agreed to keep Shapiro's name private because Nilson informed her it was a confidential settlement. She said she did not ask Nilson who had requested secrecy.

"I believed him," Pratt said. "I hope this is an isolated incident."

She said she would demand more details if asked to approve confidential settlements in the future.

Attempts to reach Young for comment were unsuccessful Wednesday.

The city and Shapiro agreed that some details of the settlement could become public after a legal challenge by The Daily Record.

According to court documents, Shapiro was arrested in November 2007 after Officer Keith Merryman, a member of the sex crimes division, searched in the state motor vehicle database for an accused sex offender named Yisroel Shapiro.

Two brothers had told police and prosecutors that Yisroel Shapiro had molested them more than a decade ago in his Baltimore home while preparing them for their bar mitzvahs, according to the documents.

In a deposition, Merryman said that Yakov Shapiro was the only person he found in the state when he searched for a "Y. Shapiro" in the database. Although Yakov Shapiro lives in Germantown, not Baltimore, a warrant was issued in his name.

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