Legal fee questions still unanswered


More questions have been raised than answered by the report on legal fees paid to non-staff attorneys that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has finally made public. The mayor may have fulfilled his promise to provide "the most extensive disclosure of law fees that this city has ever seen," but the inch-thick report doesn't include enough information to be called "full disclosure."

The report reveals which law firms have been retained by the city from Jan. 1, 1991, to June 30, 1995. But there is not enough detail about the the legal work performed to tell whether the fees were reasonable or whether expertise beyond the scope of the city legal department was necessary.

The degree of disclosure varies from department to department. For example, the Department of Education tells us it paid $731,402 to Felicity Lavelle during that 4 1/2 -year period. And in a footnote, the department points out that Felicity Lavelle is the court-appointed monitor on special education compliance. The report says the Health Department paid $2,564 to Tydings and Rosenberg in 1993 and $21,902 to the same firm this year. But there is no explanation of what the firm did or why it only needs to do it every other year.

Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems paid $3,281 to Crystal R. Chissell in 1991, $12,341 to her in 1992 and $4,531 in 1993. But her fees dropped to $1,361 last year, which was also the first year Shapiro and Olander received legal fees from BSAS -- $6,584. So far in 1995, BSAS has paid Shapiro and Olander $1,354, and Crystal R. Chissell has received nothing. Has Shapiro and Olander taken over as the expert at whatever legal service Crystal R. Chissell used to provide? You can't tell from the mayor's report.

The Healthy Start program paid no legal fees in 1991, but in 1992 paid $2,404 to Frank, Bernstein and $1,492 to Tydings and Rosenberg. The next year it paid $9,050 to Tydings and Rosenberg and in 1994 it paid $18,768 to that firm. But so far this year Healthy Start has paid $5,904 to Tydings and Rosenberg and $5,039 to Shapiro and Olander. Looks like Shapiro and Olander has become the legal expert here, too. But what is it they're doing? You can't tell from the mayor's report.

What you can tell is that the city has spent a lot of money on outside counsel -- $17.4 million since 1991. The mayor says those lawyers have recovered $30 million and obtained another $26 million in judgments the city hopes to collect. That's intentionally misleading: Nearly all this recovered money is the result of one law firm's work in one case -- the city's claim against asbestos manufacturers and suppliers. City government has 77 lawyers on its staff; why can't they be used more often?

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