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Baltimore City Council clashes with Rawlings-Blake over outside lawyer payment

The City Council is poised to go to battle with the Rawlings-Blake administration over whether Baltimore should pay a team of private lawyers $2 million to represent the city during a federal probe of its Police Department.

The two sides will meet Tuesday at a budget committee hearing to discuss why the administration wants to pay a Washington-based firm instead of relying on city staff attorneys to work with the U.S. Department of Justice on the investigation of Baltimore police policies and practices.

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Many members of the 15-person council say the city should do everything possible to help the Justice Department reform the Police Department, not ask an expensive law firm to argue against improvements.

"No one is being charged or is under investigation — they just want to know what the police practices are," said Councilman Carl Stokes, a candidate for mayor. "I don't think it takes any expert skill to tell the truth."

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Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the goal is to help accommodate the Justice Department's request. Since the city retained the law firm WilmerHale in May, its lawyers have helped review and provide federal officials with more than 60,000 pages of documents and 800,000 emails.

"It's not about fighting, it is about working with them in a smooth and efficient way, and what their experience with the Department of Justice can lend to us to improve our Police Department," Libit said.

So far, the city has made four payments to the firm, which is representing the city of Chicago in a similar federal investigation. The total amount, paid from the city Law Department's budget, will be tallied in time for Tuesday's hearing. About 10 city lawyers also are working with the federal agency.

The council is being asked to authorize the expenditure. It is part of $11.3 million the administration is looking to add to the current year's budget. Other expenses include $500,000 the city decided to spend on a settlement with CSX to families affected by the 26th Street collapse in April 2014.

The bill to approve spending to pay the law firm also would also approve payment of the $6.4 million settlement with the family of Freddie Gray — which Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke says was an attempt to force the council to approve the legal fees.

"I resent being put in that position," Clarke said.

Clarke, along with many other council members, supports the money for Gray's family. But she said the $2 million in lawyers' fees would be better spent on initiatives that help improve the relationship between the police and the communities they serve.

Some council members have said the administration needs to separate the two spending proposals — easily done, they say — or risk rejection of the Gray family settlement.

Libit said the $8.4 million was packaged together because the administration is looking to pay both expenditures out of the Police Department's legal fund.

Other budget requests also are combined in single pieces of legislation, including $347,000 to hire 10 people to work in the police crime lab and to buy new equipment and supplies. Libit said breaking up each expenditures into separate bills would clutter the legislative process.

He said it was too early to discuss backup plans to cover what has already been spent on the lawyers but warned that council approval is necessary.

"There will be real fiscal consequences if they choose not to support making these [fund] transfers," Libit said. "We hope the council members will have open minds."

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Libit said officials will explain to the committee that the city Law Department does not have the staffing or the expertise to work alone with the Justice Department.

He pointed to letters submitted to the council that support the administration's point of view, including one from Stephen H. Sachs. Sachs is a former Maryland attorney general and U.S. attorney who retired from WilmerHale and has no remaining interest in the firm.

The primary purpose is "to ensure that the investigation results in fundamental reform," Sachs wrote.

Councilman Brandon Scott is among the budget committee members waiting for more information at Tuesday's hearing before making up his mind.

"I don't think getting an attorney necessarily means we're fighting" the Justice Department, Scott said.

If the bill makes it to the full council, it will face opposition from City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who sees the expenditure as a way the administration is trying to "weasel out of some reforms we greatly need," Young spokesman Lester Davis said.

The council and mayor are also at odds over Young's bill that would put a charter amendment on the November ballot mandating that the city spend more money on children and teens. The council gave preliminary approval to the bill Monday.

Rawlings-Blake has expressed concerns about the bill, saying it would set a bad fiscal precedent and tie the hands of future mayors. Though she hasn't pledged to veto the measure, council leaders say they would be prepared take the highly unusual action to overturn a veto.

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