Catholic schools in Baltimore propelled George W. McManus Jr. from poverty to success as a lawyer, he says, providing him a solid education. And years later, when the legal tables turned and he needed defense, priests and school officials were there as character witnesses.
Now McManus, 92, plans to leave an $8.5 million bequest to benefit the schools he attended as well as other charities. Officials with the Baltimore Community Foundation expect to distribute the funds for years to come, as the fund would generate an estimated half-million dollars a year in interest.
It would be the culmination of a complicated legacy.
Dubbed by a Legal Aid Bureau colleague "the Godfather of pro bono" because of his indigent defense work, McManus rose to prominence in Baltimore as a lawyer and philanthropist in the 1970s and 1980s, frequently giving to Catholic causes. Then in 1986, he was sentenced to two years in prison for using his George W. McManus Foundation to mask a tax evasion scam.
McManus has said the allegations stemmed from an honest mistake, and after prison he regained his law license and returned to philanthropy, building up the McManus foundation's funds. He announced the plan last month to endow a charitable fund through the Baltimore Community Foundation upon his death.
The fund will pay out to a handful of Catholic schools, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, and the Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland. Gigi Wirtz, a spokeswoman for the community foundation, said the McManus fund would be among the largest it operates.
The gift also comes at a time when charitable support for Catholic schools is becoming increasingly critical, according to Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which closed several area schools in recent years because of financial concerns.
Though the schools that would benefit from McManus' donation are not run by the archdiocese, Caine said, Catholic schools around the region are dealing with similar challenges. In McManus' youth, most schools were staffed by nuns or other church officials, which kept costs down, Caine said, but costs have grown as schools hired more professional educators.
"Philanthropic money is really the lifeblood of the Catholic school system today," Caine said. "It's a product that's in demand, but it's a product that also suffers from an affordability challenge."
McManus said his final act is motivated by a desire to pass along the good fortune he received as a young boy who got a free education at Catholic institutions in Baltimore.
"My mother died when I was six, and I never had any money for my tuition," he said in an interview at his spacious stone-front Guilford home.
Even when he attended Harvard Law School on a GI Bill grant after World War II, McManus could not afford a suit to wear. Instead, he had a tailor remove the shiny buttons and trim from his Navy uniform.
"That was the only clothes I had," McManus said.
When he returned to Baltimore, McManus became successful as a lawyer, taking on a range of civil cases, and started his foundation.
Calvert Hall College High School, which McManus attended, has been the recipient of tens of thousands of dollars from his foundation and his energy as a fundraiser. Calvert Hall's interim president, Frank P. Bramble Sr., described McManus as a "tremendous blessing."
"When you have generous benefactors, it helps secure the future of the school," Bramble said.
McManus also attached his family's name to a theater at Loyola University Maryland, helped to organize the construction of a downtown office for the Legal Aid Bureau in the 1990s and served on city boards and commissions.
Stanford G. Gann Jr., who serves on a Legal Aid Bureau fundraising board with McManus and dubbed him the "Godfather," said he is a source of ideas and support and has taken on a role as an "elder statesman" among lawyers who provide services to the poor.
McManus said he earned $50 a week in his first job, but by the late 1970s was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year at a practice he started by taking on wills, deeds and estates — "whatever came in the door."
"He's part of the old-time practitioners who were generalists and were able to succeed in many different roles," said Herbert S. Garten, a veteran Baltimore lawyer. "That was a tribute to his background and willingness to take on matters. … He appealed to some very substantial clients."
One client, Elkton-based Colonial Metals, paid McManus his largest-ever fee: $641,000, according to court records. McManus recently recalled the civil case as one of his most important, saying he not only mounted a successful defense but brought a countersuit.
But much of that fee was never reported to the IRS, and in 1986 a federal grand jury indicted McManus, alleging that he evaded $546,000 in taxes.
At his trial, McManus argued that his bookkeeper had made a mistake with his taxes and that he had given much of the money away through his foundation. McManus' team called character witnesses to testify to his good works.
But prosecutors said the McManus foundation had considerably increased its charitable spending only after McManus discovered he was under investigation — an attempt, they said, to "buy his way out of trouble."
Robert Mathias, one of the prosecutors on the case and himself a Catholic, remembers quizzing the prominent character witnesses for McManus — among them priests, Catholic school officials and other lawyers — who came to testify on McManus' behalf. Back then, Mathias called the case "one of the most egregious tax frauds ever perpetrated" in Maryland.
We "made it clear that they might be doing something good with this money now, but character witnesses don't know what he was doing with his taxes," Mathias said.
The jury convicted McManus and a federal judge sentenced him to two years in prison and ordered him to pay a $20,000 fine and serve 2,500 hours of community service. In a separate proceeding, the Maryland Court of Appeals stripped McManus of his law license.
McManus declined recently to comment on the case, saying he could not really remember it.
Wirtz, from the Baltimore Community Foundation, said the organization is not concerned about McManus' criminal record. The community foundation is composed of hundreds of individual funds, some of which give to causes designated by individuals and their families.
"The man clearly has this very clear idea of giving back to the specific organizations that helped him to the success that he achieved," Wirtz said. "We see a lot of people in that situation who want to give back to the community."
In recent years, McManus came under scrutiny in a Baltimore Sun article for paying himself more as president of his foundation than it gave away. He said at the time he would consider changing that.
In 2012, the most recent year for which records are available, he earned a salary of $78,000 for working 25 hours a week, while the foundation made donations of about $60,000. In an interview, McManus said he did not keep track of his salary.
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McManus said he wanted to focus on his achievements, and described the construction of the Legal Aid Bureau's office building, which opened in July 1992, as his proudest.
"It's a philosophical statement that shows the interest of the City of Baltimore in empowering poor people to settle their problems through the process of law," McManus said at the time of the opening. "Instead of taking the law into their own hands, they know they can come here."
Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., executive director of the Legal Aid Bureau, said McManus' work was "instrumental" in getting the offices built. Since then he has remained an active member of the organization, rarely missing a meeting.
He is "a wonderful man who has done wonderful things for people less fortunate than himself," Joseph said.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.