After nearly a decade as Baltimore's top lawyer, City Solicitor George A. Nilson will no longer lead the city law department, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced Friday.
Her decision to replace Nilson came a day after the city faced embarrassment over his hiring of a former colleague who turned out to have neo-Nazi ties in his past. The mayor said Deputy Solicitor David Ralph will serve as interim city solicitor.
"The Mayor thanks Mr. Nilson for his dedicated service to the City of Baltimore and wishes him well in his future endeavor," Rawlings-Blake spokesman Anthony McCarthy said in a statement.
Nilson had been city solicitor since 2007. He was paid $166,500 annually.
The news came after the administration announced Thursday that it had terminated a contract with an attorney who was the subject of a Southern Poverty Law Center report.
The Rawlings-Blake administration said it had fired Glen Keith Allen, 65, who had worked for years at the DLA Piper law firm until retiring in January. Allen had been working for the city since February as contract employee handling complex litigation. The city began investigating Allen's background after the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that he had a history of supporting the neo-Nazi National Alliance.
In an interview Thursday with The Baltimore Sun, Allen said he was a casual member of the group in the late 1980s and early 1990s but had concluded "emphatically that that was a huge mistake."
Allen was helping to defend the city in a lawsuit brought by an African-American man who alleges that police officers withheld and fabricated evidence to convict him wrongfully of murder. His termination came a week after the U.S. Department of Justice accused the Baltimore Police Department of violating civil rights, particularly in poor, black communities.
Sources close to the mayor said that she had had some differences with Nilson in recent months but that the embarrassment of hiring Allen was the final straw. Nilson's last day will be Wednesday, officials said.
Nilson, who has had a long career practicing both public and private law, did not respond to requests for comment.
A native of Queens in New York, Nilson, 74, is a graduate of Yale Law School. He served as second-in-command in the Maryland attorney general's office in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1986, Nilson led an effort to reform campaign laws under Gov. Harry Hughes. He chaired a commission that proposed limiting the contributions of political action committees and barring lobbyists from raising money for state lawmakers. Later, Nilson become the lawyer for big tobacco companies fighting smoking bans.
After working for DLA Piper, focusing on public and consumer law, Nilson was hired as city solicitor a decade ago by Mayor Sheila Dixon. As solicitor, he sat on the Board of Estimates and often emerged as a leading defender of Dixon's and, later, Rawlings-Blake's policies.
While working for Rawlings-Blake, Nilson determined in 2011 that the mayor should abstain from voting on matters relating directly to Johns Hopkins Community Physicians, where her husband worked at the time. But, he argued, Rawlings-Blake was free to vote on matters involving other divisions of Hopkins. In 2012, when Comptroller Joan Pratt publicly criticized the Rawlings-Blake administration's purchase of high-tech video phones and other equipment, Nilson issued an opinion arguing the spending "was neither out of the ordinary, nor in violation of law."
Appearing before the City Council, Nilson often pushed back against legislation that he argued encroached on mayoral responsibility. In doing so, Nilson sometimes clashed with City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young over high-profile bills, including Young's push to require city police to wear body cameras and force businesses to hire local residents. Nilson called those bills "illegal."
Young grew so frustrated with Nilson's legal advice he drew up a charter amendment in 2013 to allow the council to hire its own attorney.
On Friday, Young's spokesman, Lester Davis, said Young "wishes Mr. Nilson the best."
"He respects the mayor's authority to make hiring decisions within her agency," Davis said.
Councilman Bill Henry said Nilson worked to represent both the mayor's interests and the City Council, saying he took his "responsibility for being a lawyer to the whole city seriously."
"It's a shame that this would have to happen," Henry said. "The solicitor has been a very conscientious public servant. Not a lot of people are willing to leave the private sector and come help the government get better."
But City Councilman Brandon Scott took a different view.
"Accountability starts at the top," Scott said of Nilson's hiring of Allen. "This was unacceptable. In my opinion, he should have paid with his job."
City Councilman Robert W. Curran said he'd "always had a good impression of [Nilson], and a good working relationship with him."
"I'm sorry he had to leave under these circumstances," Curran said. "I wish David Ralph the best. I just wish George had done better vetting."
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.