Legal-fee work to be stopped

The Baltimore Sun

Indicted Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon told her law department yesterday to halt work on a policy that could have set terms for taxpayers to reimburse for her legal fees.

"The mayor has asked that the establishment of the new policy not go forward," said City Solicitor George Nilson. "So it won't."

After declining to comment on the matter for two days, Dixon's office released a statement yesterday afternoon quoting the mayor as saying: "The City Solicitor conducted research on compensation for legal defense expenses. I have not seen the extent of Mr. Nilson's findings nor do I believe that a new policy is necessary."

Even without a new policy, public funds could still be used for Dixon's defense. Currently, city officials decide compensation on a case-by-case basis, and nothing would prevent Dixon from submitting her bills to the Board of Estimates, of which she is a member.

Dixon's statement did not address whether she intends to seek repayment. She could also create a legal defense fund to pay bills - a move that some of her supporters explored but abandoned last year.

The Baltimore Sun reported Thursday that Nilson was developing a policy modeled on a state code which allows officials to have their legal defense fees repaid if they are cleared of a crime.

Dixon was indicted this month on 12 criminal counts, including stealing gift cards meant for needy Baltimore families, failing to disclose expensive gifts from developers whose projects received tax breaks from the city and misuse of office.

She has said she is innocent and has hired two prominent lawyers: Arnold M. Weiner, who has his own firm, and Dale P. Kelberman, a partner at Miles & Stockbridge. Neither have commented on how much their services cost, but other defense attorneys estimate the bills could be more than $100,000.

Since the proposed policy came to light, talk radio and Internet forums have been full of harsh criticism of the mayor, with many bristling at the idea that taxpayers would be asked to pay the bills for her legal defense.

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt was briefed on Nilson's policy this week and said pulling back was a "wise decision," adding that she would have opposed it "under current conditions."

Last summer Nilson began researching how the city has handled legal bills in the past. He said that he told the mayor in May or June about his plans to do the research, but he had not briefed her on his decision to create a policy.

The criticisms that erupted this week were "not focused on the value of the policy," Nilson said, but rather on "visceral reaction to the concept that any public employees might have their expenses repaid if they were exonerated."

"Maybe if the subject had come up a year ago there would have been a better reaction," he said.

The policy would have potentially also covered legal bills incurred by Councilwoman Helen L. Holton who was accused of bribery, perjury and misuse of office after she was alleged to have told a developer to pay for a $12,500 political poll. She has said that she did nothing wrong.

The developer, Ronald H. Lipscomb, was seeking tax breaks from her committee at the time. He was also indicted on bribery charges. He has said that he is innocent.

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