A state ethics committee has decided it is inappropriate for the American Civil Liberties Union -- a registered lobbyist -- to represent a Maryland legislator who is being sued for allegedly ruining the reputation of an Annapolis restaurant manager she accused of racism.
Del. Melony Ghee Griffith, a Prince George's County Democrat, retained the ACLU in May after Jeb Bello, a Maryland Inn manager, filed a lawsuit in April charging that the legislator publicly portrayed him as a "bigot and a racist," rendering him "unemployable in the city of Annapolis."
David Tanenbaum, a Washington attorney also representing Griffith, said the state Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics wrote him a letter Tuesday that he paraphrased as saying, "pro bono legal services from the ACLU would not be appropriate. The ACLU has a lot of business before the legislature and there was the appearance of impropriety."
Dwight Sullivan, ACLU staff counsel, said he is filing a notice of withdrawal today in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.
"I'm very disappointed," Sullivan said. "We view this case as an important consumer rights case. If people are sued for making complaints about receiving poor service, then that is a severe blow to free speech."
Bello filed the lawsuit seeking $3.1 million after Griffith, who is African-American, complained that Bello had been rude to her in March when she arrived at Maryland Inn with a black constituent 20 minutes late for a lunch reservation.
Griffith said Bello refused to seat her and the friend, even though seven or eight tables were open, and instead warmly greeted a white couple without reservations who had arrived after she did and offered them a table.
Manager was fired
As Griffith's account of the incident spread through the House of Delegates, some legislators threatened to boycott the restaurant, and Bello was fired.
Tom McCarthy, Bello's attorney, said he had wondered whether the ACLU's representation was an ethical violation.
"The ACLU does testify before the judicial committee, on which Delegate Griffith sits," McCarthy said. "If this isn't a conflict, I don't know what is."
Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., chairman of the ethics committee, said he could not comment on Griffith's lawsuit and would not confirm whether the committee had sent out an opinion on the matter.
But the Baltimore Democrat said that in general, legislators cannot receive gifts from "anyone who has business before the General Assembly. The ACLU is a lobbyist."
Tanenbaum said Griffith had asked Montague and the ethics committee's counsel, William Somerville, in April whether retaining the ACLU would present any ethical problems.
He said Montague and Somerville only told her to file a form disclosing the ACLU's pro bono legal services, which she did.
"She had thought the disclosure was sufficient, and she complied with the requirements," Tanenbaum said. "They took some time to review the [disclosure] form and then asked her to file a formal request for an opinion. My client was very careful to comply with all the ethical rules and regulations at each step. She agrees that the ethics committee should maintain strict rules and regulations."
Agreed to withdraw
So, when Tanenbaum received the ethics committee's letter this week, the ACLU immediately agreed to withdraw its representation.
In the aftermath of the latest episode of the case, Bello said he still had one other question surrounding the ACLU's representation of Griffith: Why didn't the organization jump to his aid instead of hers?
"I thought they shouldn't have been on her side to begin with," Bello said. "I was hoping they would be on my side of the story."