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Baltimore City

Scaled-back payment to law firm untangles money for Freddie Gray's family

This City Hall compromise has untangled money for Freddie Gray's family.

The Rawlings-Blake administration is scaling back the amount it would pay lawyers this year to represent the city in the federal investigation of the Baltimore Police Department — part of a compromise that also untangles money promised to Freddie Gray's family.

The administration will ask the City Council to approve legislation that would pay Washington-based WilmerHale $1.2 million, down from $2 million, to assist city lawyers as the U.S. Department of Justice investigates police policies and practices.

In a separate bill, the administration will ask the council to authorize the $6.4 million settlement with the family of Gray, whose death last spring after an injury suffered in police custody sparked riots and looting.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Vice President Edward Reisinger said they will support the expenditures. Council leaders had opposed the administration's first proposal, which packaged the two payments together in an $8.4 million supplemental budget bill.

Young said his main problem was that the administration had not fully explained what WilmerHale lawyers were being paid to do.

"We're talking, and we're getting the information that we've been asking for," Young said. "Hopefully, we can move past this."

Money for the Washington lawyers and the Gray settlement is expected to be approved Wednesday by the city's five-member spending panel, controlled by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The City Council could then consider the bills as early as Monday.

Each bill would need the backing of at least eight council members to be approved.

The mayor plans to include an additional $800,000 to $1 million for WilmerHale in her proposed budget for the year that begins July 1. That will be subject to council approval.

Rawlings-Blake said the outside lawyers have been helping produce documents, facilitate interviews and collect other information requested by the Justice Department.

The city's law department does not have the staffing or expertise to accommodate federal investigators, according to the administration.

Council members had demanded that the payments for the lawyers and for Gray's family be split into two separate pieces of legislation. The administration reached the $6.4 million settlement with Gray's family in September to avoid a lawsuit.

While supporting the money for Gray's family, council members cited concerns that WilmerHale could be working against needed police reforms.

Council members also said they were concerned the city was using a Washington firm rather than one in Baltimore.

The settlement for Gray's family was never in dispute.

Reisinger said he came to support hiring the law firm after a series of meetings with the city's law department and others. He said he is convinced WilmerHale has the specialized experience the city needs.

WilmerHale also represents the city of Chicago in a similar federal investigation.

"I get it now, because they're talking to us," Reisinger said. "Before, to me, it was just a blank check, but [the WilmerHale lawyers] are in the trenches with the mayor's office, the Police Department and the community to reform the Police Department."

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the administration will keep the council abreast of WilmerHale's work and the continuing Justice Department review. He said the council's support also will be necessary to implement the reforms the Justice Department ultimately will require.

"We recognize their concerns about not feeling like they were adequately informed, so we have taken a number of steps to better brief them on the process," Libit said. "The council is an important part of the process."

Much of the money for WilmerHale will pay for work already performed, a factor Young said played into his support.

The city retained the firm in May, and its lawyers have provided federal officials with hundreds of thousands of emails and documents. About 10 of the city's lawyers also are working with investigators.

"They did the work. If I did the work, I would want to be paid, too," Young said.

Young said he is no longer concerned that WilmerHale is looking to "suppress" reforms, but is helping the city be proactive in its dealings with the Justice Department.

Councilwoman Helen Holton, chairwoman of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, said she intends to support the money for WilmerHale.

Holton's committee rejected the original request.

The administration argued at the time that both payments would be made out of the Police Department's legal fund, and therefore should be contained in a single bill.

Holton said Monday her only previous objection was with the two-part bill, not hiring WilmerHale.

"Not having proper counsel would be counterproductive and more costly with lesser results," Holton said.

Councilman Brandon Scott, a member of the budget committee, said he also backs the spending.

"Ultimately, it's in the best interest of the taxpayers and the city," Scott said. "It does not mean we're going to be fighting the Department of Justice, but working with them and ensuring the citizens of Baltimore are being looked out for at every turn."

Scott said he is relieved to see the money for the Gray family on track for approval.

"We need to move forward and pay this family, so they can move on to the next phase," Scott said.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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