A key City Council panel refused Tuesday to hear the Rawlings-Blake administration's plans to spend $2 million for legal help in the federal investigation of the Baltimore Police Department — leaving the $6.4 million settlement for Freddie Gray's family hanging in the balance.
The Budget and Appropriations committee voted to withdraw the legislation from consideration. The two-part bill sought approval for the administration to pay both the lawyers and the Gray family. The council could not act on one of the expenditures without the other because they were tied in the single bill.
Councilwoman Helen Holton of West Baltimore said the committee wants the administration to split the spending into separate bills.
Many members of the council say they support the money for Gray's family but do not want the city to pay a Washington-based law firm, WilmerHale, to assist city staff attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Baltimore police policies and practices.
"How [the administration] chooses to deal with that, I am not mind reader, but I think it was a very clear vote from this committee," said Holton, who chairs the committee.
Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said, "It is disappointing that the council would take action without any opportunity for public discussion or debate. Isn't that the purpose of the council hearing process?"
Libit said the administration has not decided what action to take next.
The request was one of several presented to the seven-member committee seeking approval for a total of about $10 million in previously unbudgeted expenses.
Among the measures the committee sent to the full 15-member council for consideration on Jan. 25 is $500,000 toward a settlement with CSX to pay residents affected by the 26th Street collapse in April 2014. CSX will pay $700,000 toward the settlement. About 20 families will divide the money.
Administration officials say the $8.4 million for Gray's family and outside lawyers was packaged together because both would be paid from the Police Department's legal fund. The city has already paid WilmerHale about $1 million to represent the city. It's unclear how the city budget would be affected if the council refuses to approve the request to use the police legal fund to cover the expense.
Council Vice President Edward Reisinger of South Baltimore said the administration's decision to hire the firm without a full council briefing shows an unacceptable disregard for the legislative process.
"The City Council is an institution and we are elected by the people of our districts," said Reisinger, a member of the budget committee. "We have the right to know when they are spending the taxpayers' money. The ball is in their court."
Reisinger said he is vehemently opposed to spending $2 million on lawyers that he thinks will put more focus on defending the Police Department than working with the Justice Department to improve it.
WilmerHale is representing Chicago in a similar probe.
Michael Greenberger, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, wrote a letter to the council to say the city needs outside legal help on the "enormous" Justice Department probe. He is a former top Justice Department official.
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WilmerHale lawyers are providing "massive document and email analysis, complicated legal research, extensive fact evaluation" and meeting preparation, Greenberger said. The lawyers also can negotiate with federal officials to find solutions acceptable to both parties.
Managing the requests without outside help could bring the Police Department "to its knees operationally," Greenberger said. That also would contribute to a slow investigation for which "Baltimore and its citizens will pay a devastating and irreparable price."
Councilman Brandon Scott of Northeast Baltimore said the administration and his council colleagues each have valid points.
"How many other cities have had outside lawyers? What was the charge? What savings were won? That's the kind of stuff I want to know," Scott said.