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Baltimore spending board approves $2 million in legal fees, sends to council for consideration

Baltimore's spending board voted Wednesday to pay outside legal counsel $2 million for representation in the federal probe of the city's Police Department.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young was the lone member of the five-person panel controlled by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to vote against the administration's proposal.

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Young said the city has enough expertise on staff to assist the U.S. Department of Justice with its civil rights investigation. "Why spend all this money?" Young asked.

He also expressed concern that the outside lawyers would be more focused on defending the Police Department's actions than aiding the Justice Department in reforming it.

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The City Council still must approve the expenditure.

The Board of Estimates voted 4-1 to pay the Washington-based firm WilmerHale $2 million over a 14-month period, ending in June. Besides the mayor and council president, the board is composed of Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, Solicitor George Nilson and a representative from the Department of Public Works.

The board also approved a $6.4 million settlement payment for the family of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in April. Gray's death sparked protests and rioting across the city. The first of six officers charged in connection with his arrest and death is on trial now.

The lawyers will be paid $400 to $800 an hour. Since the city retained the firm in May, the lawyers have helped provide the Justice Department 60,000 pages of documents and 800,000 emails, and facilitated daily interviews with city officials, according to Nilson.

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Rawlings-Blake and Young were among city officials who urged the Justice Department to launch the investigation. The agency decided in May to launch the full-blown investigation after Gray's death.

A federal probe had been underway since last fall, just days after The Baltimore Sun reported that the city had paid millions in recent years on court judgments and settlements in 102 lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct. That review was expanded into a more general "pattern or practice" investigation.

The mayor said Wednesday the stakes were too high for the city to have shopped around for cheaper counsel, and she said not enough lawyers are on staff to adequately handle the demands of the investigation.

"We want to make sure we get this right for the city of Baltimore, and that doesn't mean doing it on the cheap," Rawlings-Blake said. "It means getting the expertise we need to make sure we're able to comply with the investigation, that we're able to do everything we can to put ourselves in the best position to get reform and to make sure it sticks."

About 10 city attorneys are working alongside the WilmerHale lawyers on the investigation.

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