Over attorney's protests, Baltimore defends secrecy in wrongful arrest settlement

Baltimore officials paid a $200,000 settlement to a distinguished violinist who had been wrongly arrested on child abuse charges and withheld his name, citing his desire for confidentiality, but the man's attorney says it was the city — not his client — who requested secrecy.

Yakov Y. Shapiro, a musician and teacher, filed suit against the city after he was jailed for 40 hours on child abuse allegations because of a police clerical error. Officers issued a warrant for the Germantown man although they had been seeking a Baltimore man named Yisroel Shapiro, who is three years younger and 9 inches taller.

On Wednesday, city officials disputed the attorney's claims and said they acted in an effort to protect Yakov Shapiro. The details of the settlement were first reported by The Daily Record after a months-long investigation.

"My information, and I have no reason to doubt it, was that [the confidentiality agreement] was in there at the insistence of the plaintiff or the plaintiff's lawyer," said City Solicitor George Nilson. "My understanding was that he was relieved that there was not further publicity around the lawsuit when it was published."

"If the only purpose is to protect the city from embarrassment, that's not in my judgment a sufficient reason" to not disclose the name," said Nilson. "That was not the purpose here."

But Steven D. Kupferberg, an attorney for Yakov Shapiro, said he was surprised to spot the confidentiality clause in the written agreement because city officials had not discussed it in the meeting in which they hammered out the settlement deal.

"I wrote back to [Assistant City Solicitor Neal M. Janey Jr.] and said that wasn't part of our discussion and we would rather not enter into that type of agreement," Kupferberg said. "He said we had to go with his wording or the case wouldn't settle."

In March, when the city's spending board — which includes Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young — approved the settlement, a mayoral spokesman told The Baltimore Sun that the plaintiff "demanded confidentiality as part of the settlement agreement."

"We've attempted to provide as much transparency as possible within the confines" of the agreement, Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said at the time.

O'Doherty did not answer questions Wednesday about whether city officials misrepresented or were misinformed about the details of the settlement, saying in a statement only that it was "undeniable" that the plaintiff's attorney had agreed to and signed the settlement.

"The entire Board of Estimates, including three independently elected officials, approved the agreement in the interest of protecting the claimant from further harm," he said. "The solicitor believes that protecting the claimant was an entirely appropriate objective and has no second thoughts."

Former U.S. Attorney for Maryland and former state Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs said he saw no justification for withholding information about such a large city expenditure.

"I don't care who asks for it. A settlement of that sort … the public has a right to know the facts of how $200,000 is being spent and to whom and why," Sachs said. "To me, that's self-evident. It's irrelevant whether the motive was to protect the victim at his request or whether the motive was to protect a policeman who blundered.

"Those things, to me, are and ought to be irrelevant," he said. "The public has a right to know how its money is being spent. End of story."

Pratt said she agreed to keep Shapiro's name private because Nilson informed her it was a confidential settlement. She said she did not ask Nilson who had requested secrecy.

"I believed him," Pratt said. "I hope this is an isolated incident."

She said she would demand more details if asked to approve confidential settlements in the future.

Attempts to reach Young for comment were unsuccessful Wednesday.

The city and Shapiro agreed that some details of the settlement could become public after a legal challenge by The Daily Record.

According to court documents, Shapiro was arrested in November 2007 after Officer Keith Merryman, a member of the sex crimes division, searched in the state motor vehicle database for an accused sex offender named Yisroel Shapiro.

Two brothers had told police and prosecutors that Yisroel Shapiro had molested them more than a decade ago in his Baltimore home while preparing them for their bar mitzvahs, according to the documents.

In a deposition, Merryman said that Yakov Shapiro was the only person he found in the state when he searched for a "Y. Shapiro" in the database. Although Yakov Shapiro lives in Germantown, not Baltimore, a warrant was issued in his name.

The warrant listed Yisroel Shapiro's address, but also included details of Yakov Shapiro's physical description culled from his motor vehicle records. Police never went to Yisroel Shapiro's home; rather, officers knocked on Yakov Shapiro's door as he was heading out to baby-sit his granddaughter.

Through his attorney, Yakov Shapiro declined a request for an interview. But in an interview with a psychiatrist that was included in court papers, the physically slight man, then 60, described the "frightening" experience of being arrested and herded into a small cell with 25 other men, many of whom appeared to be on drugs or ill.

Yakov Shapiro's son defended his father at a bail review hearing and explained that he had still been living in the former Soviet Union, where he grew up, when the first molestation episode was alleged to have occurred. He explained that his father had never taught bar mitzvah lessons, did not speak Hebrew and had only visited Baltimore on a few occasions, according to court records.

After his son offered his home as collateral to post a $40,000 bond, Shapiro was freed. But his ordeal was far from over — administrators and parents at the Montgomery County Jewish community center where he taught had been informed of the charges against him, according to court records.

Although police quickly realized their mistake and arrested Yisroel Shapiro, it took months to clear the incorrect warrant from law enforcement databases, Kupferberg said. His client was afraid to leave the house during that time for fear that he would be rearrested, according to court papers.

In an interview with the psychiatrist, Yakov Shapiro said he was "anxious and edgy" after the arrest and developed symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

'He finds it incredibly ironic that all the time he lived in the Soviet Union he was never arrested, but here in the United States, a place he chose for its promise of safety and freedom from harassment, he was falsely arrested, detained and slandered," psychiatrist and expert witness Susan J. Fiester wrote in a court report.

Kupferberg said his client did not ask city officials to withhold his name because he did not want "people to think he had covered something up."

Kupferberg said that after The Sun reported in March that officials were not divulging the name at the plaintiff's request, he sent an e-mail message to Janey, the assistant city solicitor, asking him to correct the information.

Nilson, Janey's supervisor, said he had not seen such an e-mail and could not confirm that it had been received.

Kupferberg raised concerns that police could repeat the error. Anthony Guglielmi, a Baltimore police spokesman, said he could not reveal whether Merryman had been reprimanded because it was part of his personnel file and therefore protected from public scrutiny.

Shapiro's arrest was a "very unfortunate mistake and a training issue," he said.

"At the end of the day, our officers try really hard and arrest about 70,000 people a year," he said. That's not an excuse, but that's why we have to do our part when it comes to training and things like that."

Yisroel Shapiro, who is also identified in court records as Israel Shapira, pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse. He was sentenced to two days in jail on a five year suspended sentence and remains on probation.





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