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City solicitor defends hiring of outside counsel in Justice Department probe

Baltimore's top lawyer defended the decision to spend $400 to $800 an hour to hire outside legal counsel to represent the city during the federal investigation of the Police Department, an expense some say they're concerned about.

City Solicitor George Nilson said Tuesday that over the past seven months, city officials have turned over to the U.S. Department of Justice more than 60,000 pages of documents and 800,000 emails. Officials have also facilitated interviews of as many as 15 to 18 people a day, Nilson said. He said it was important that experienced lawyers from the Washington-based firm WilmerHale were on hand to assemble and review the documents and to accompany employees during interviews.

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Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration said Monday it would ask the city's Board of Estimates and City Council to approve spending $2 million to pay the law firm to represent the city during the investigation.

"I felt WilmerHale was far and away the firm best equipped to help the City ... navigate this matter to the best conclusion in the circumstances," Nilson wrote in an October memo to the mayor's chief of staff. The Baltimore Sun obtained the memo Tuesday.

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said it used to be unusual for communities to hire outside lawyers to assist with Justice Department investigations, but it's happening more often now.

Still, the organization said in a statement, "This particular spending seems lavish to us. That money would be much better spent fixing what is broken with the Baltimore Police Department than it is on paying politically-connected outside lawyers to defend against a [Justice Department] investigation the City invited, and which is aimed at securing much-needed departmental reform."

The federal intervention started 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. The Justice Department expanded its review into a full civil rights investigation in May after the in-custody death of Freddie Gray, whose death sparked rioting across the city. The first of six officers charged in connection with his arrest and death is on trial now.

Nilson retained the firm shortly after the civil rights probe was launched based on the "nature and extraordinary breadth" of the investigation.

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The Board of Estimates, the city's five-member spending panel that is controlled by the mayor, is expected on Wednesday to approve spending $2 million for the firm's services over 14 months. The spending request may go to the City Council as early as Thursday, though a final vote isn't expected until next year.

Councilmen Nick J. Mosby and Carl Stokes, both mayoral candidates, expressed concern about the amount of the spending, but said they wanted more information.

Mosby said hiring the firm is a sign that city officials are preparing to launch a defense in the investigation. While officials work to negotiate the best possible deal for the city, Mosby said he wants the administration to be vigilant in rooting out problems in the Police Department.

"We need to fully participate in this and it will equate to a better city and a better relationship between our Police Department and our residents," Mosby said. "Sometimes justice comes with a price tag, but I am curious to understand and know the details."

Stokes said he has questions. "This may be money well spent, but we don't know that," he said.

Civil rights investigations are often quite expensive for cities, though often the expense comes after a consent decree is ordered. Most cities estimate the costs of monitoring compliance with such decrees at $1 million a year, according to the Police Executive Research Forum.

Detroit's legal costs were $2.3 million per year for the first six years, while Los Angeles entered into a five-year contract for $11 million.

Prince George's County paid $800,000 to $1 million a year in monitoring fees. Prince George's did not employ outside lawyers during the investigation, said Sheriff Melvin C. High, the former police chief.

He called the federal investigation "a turning point in the culture of the Police Department in Prince George's County.

"It was one of the best things to happen in the history" of the department, he said.

Brent J. Gurney, a partner at WilmerHale, said the firm specializes in policing and civil rights issues. "We have the capacity to respond to a large-scale investigation, and the capacity to help make the Police Department better," said Gurney, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland.

Nilson said the firm's rates are in line with those of other firms with similar qualifications. WilmerHale gave the city a 10 percent discount on its rate and agreed to cap the total cost through June, he said. In addition to the WilmerHale lawyers, the city has about 10 attorneys working with the Justice Department.

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