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Curran to discuss disclosing legal fees with city solicitor


Maryland's attorney general, responding to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's refusal to reveal all legal fees paid to the politically connected law firm of Shapiro and Olander, said yesterday the payments from quasi-public agencies should be subject to state public disclosure laws.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said agencies created or controlled by the mayor should come under the requirements of the Maryland Public Information Act.

His views were echoed by a parade of politicians -- including the leading candidates for city comptroller -- who have called for a complete accounting of the Shapiro and Olander fees.

On Sunday, The Sun reported that the law firm -- which has among its lawyers Mr. Schmoke's campaign treasurer, Ronald M. Shapiro, and his chief political strategist, Larry S. Gibson -- had been paid at least $1.4 million for city-related work in the mayor's second term.

The amount -- double the payments reportedly paid to the firm during Mayor Schmoke's first four years in office -- may well be higher because it represents only part of the money the firm receives for its work for Baltimore and its quasi-public agencies.

Mr. Curran said he plans to call City Solicitor Neal M. Janey and discuss his views about the city's responsibilities for divulging the legal fees paid by those agencies, which are financed substantially with taxpayer dollars.

"If it's created by the City Council or by an executive order of the mayor, it seems to us that it would be a public agency," Mr. Curran said.

As such, Mr. Curran said, the finances of those agencies should be public. Mr. Curran said he would "put in a call to Neal Janey, saying here's our view. . . . Maybe that'll do some good."

After repeated requests, Mr. Schmoke said last week that he had decided to keep secret the fees paid by such organizations as the Baltimore Development Corp. and the Community Development Financing Corp., which rely on public and private funds.

Mr. Schmoke defended the secrecy decision by saying he was following a precedent set by past mayors and wanted to maintain the groups' independence and flexibility.

Last night, Mr. Schmoke issued a one-sentence statement on the continuing controversy.

"I look forward to hearing the results of the conversation between the attorney general and the city solicitor," he said through his spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman.

Mr. Schmoke has set up a number of separate agencies during his tenure, including the BDC, which oversees the city's economic development efforts; the CDFC, a community lending bank; and the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., which is running the city's historic neighborhood markets. The governing boards of those groups are appointed by the mayor, and their executives serve at the mayor's behest.

Shapiro and Olander has done extensive work for all these agencies.

The firm also represents the corporation running Baltimore's $100 million federally financed empowerment zone and incorporated the new convention bureau.

Mr. Schmoke has promised to disclose all the fees paid directly to Shapiro and Olander from city departments in four weeks. The Sun requested an accounting seven weeks ago.

The mayor's decision not to reveal the fees from the quasi-public groups drew sharp criticism on Sunday from City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who is challenging his bid for a third term in September's Democratic primary.

This week, the two leading Democratic candidates for comptroller, Joan M. Pratt and Julian L. Lapides, joined the chorus of criticism. Both promised that if elected they would audit the quasi-public agencies -- something that hasn't been done in recent years, if ever, according to the city's acting comptroller.

"I feel taxpayers are entitled to full and complete financial disclosure," Ms. Pratt said, adding that a complete accounting is necessary "to evaluate whether the city is spending the money appropriately and whether the fees are reasonable and necessary."

Ms. Pratt, a certified public accountant, also said publicly funded work should be awarded to companies through competitive bidding when possible. "It shouldn't be just related to legal fees, it should be everything if city funds are involved," she said.

Mr. Lapides, who spent a third of a century representing Baltimore in Maryland's General Assembly, said the quasi-public groups should be audited regularly.

"It's something that must be done and done expeditiously," he said.

"If you spend public money, the public has a right to know where that money's being spent," added Mr. Lapides, who kept close tabs on spending as a member of the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee.

Several contenders in the race for City Council president to succeed Mrs. Clarke also called for the fees to be revealed.

"I see no reason for them not to be disclosed," said Councilwoman Vera P. Hall, who represents Northwest Baltimore's 5th District and is a close ally of Mr. Schmoke's.

"Just because 'quasi' is part of that name doesn't mean that it's something we're not entitled to see," said Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, who represents South Baltimore's 6th District.

Councilman Carl Stokes, who represents East Baltimore's 2nd District, questioned whether more of the work done by Shapiro and Olander and other firms should be handled by the city's law department, which has a staff of 78 and a budget of $10 million.

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