The city's spending panel is expected on Wednesday to vote down an agreed-upon $150,000 settlement for the family of a Baltimore teen whom police left shoeless in Howard County — a rare move that comes after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake objected to the deal.
"This is a case where police officers acted far outside of their official duties and were criminally convicted of misconduct," mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said Tuesday. "Mayor Rawlings-Blake, like mayors before her, is simply saying that neither the taxpayers nor the city are at fault for the officers' wrongful actions and shouldn't be stuck with the bill."
Last month, a city judge ordered the Board of Estimates to vote publicly on the matter after he learned city officials had killed the settlement during a closed-door meeting. Attorneys representing the teenager in the $100 million lawsuit against the Baltimore police officers had asked the judge for such an order, claiming the city was playing an "unethical shell game" with the case.
"There is a duty upon the city to present it to the Board of Estimates," Circuit Judge W. Michel Pierson said.
Attorneys A. Dwight Pettit and Allan Rabineau had filed the lawsuit against officers Milton Smith III, Tyrone Francis and Gregory Hellen, who were accused of picking up two West Baltimore teens in 2009 to gather information and driving one to East Baltimore and dropping the other off in a Howard County park. They represent a 15-year-old who was found without shoes 11 miles from his home in Patapsco Valley State Park.
Rabineau called the city's handling of the settlement "highly unusual."
"We think there's something that's not quite proper in the handling of this case," he said. "We were deceived. ... We've never had a case where the settlement committee approved it and the Board of Estimates didn't go along."
In February, attorneys representing the officers, including City Solicitor George Nilson, agreed to settle the suit for $150,000. Both sides signed the agreement, and the judge canceled a March trial date and closed the case.
But then Rawlings-Blake objected to the settlement, and Nilson never took it to the Board of Estimates, which votes publicly on financial transactions more than $50,000. Nilson said city officials who met during a staff meeting "were trying to be efficient" by not seeking a vote.
Nilson testified at a court hearing last month that there is an understanding at City Hall that he and Public Works Director Alfred H. Foxx will not oppose Rawlings-Blake on votes, meaning that her position is likely to always prevail before the five-member board. Once he found out Rawlings-Blake opposed the settlement, he knew it couldn't pass and didn't need to be voted upon, Nilson said.
"The director of public works and the city solicitor ... always vote with the mayor," Nilson testified. "They are sometimes referred to as the mayor's votes."
Nilson also noted in court there was some "uneasiness" on the law department's settlement committee — which signed and authorized the deal — because some believed the officers were acting outside of their official capacity and the taxpayers shouldn't pay for their behavior. He said Rawlings-Blake shared that objection.
Nilson testified the only time he has ever voted against a mayor was during Sheila Dixon's administration, when he disagreed during a contract protest.
"I was told in very stern terms by a number of people in the mayor's office that no city solicitor had ever done that before and that I should reflect on the situation," Nilson said.
Pettit said he was taken aback by Nilson's testimony.
"You would think he wouldn't want the public to know that he was just a rubber stamp," Pettit said.
In a related criminal case, Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein prosecuted the officers in 2011. A jury acquitted the officers of kidnapping, but convicted two of them — Smith and Francis — of misconduct, a misdemeanor. Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory at the time criticized Hellen, who was acquitted, for employing "cowboy tactics."
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