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Baltimore spending board OKs $525,000 settlement for Gun Trace Task Force claim

Baltimore’s spending board approved a $525,000 settlement Wednesday for a man who served four years in prison after a traffic stop by two members of the Baltimore Police’s disgraced Gun Trace Task Force.

The settlement, approved unanimously by the city’s Board of Estimates, is among the largest reached to close out a lawsuit related to the task force, a rogue unit of the police department that stole from citizens, lied on paperwork and bilked the city for unearned overtime pay.

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Dozens of people have sued the city over the unit, the prosecution of which sent more than 12 officers to prison and resulted in hundreds of criminal cases being dropped or vacated. City attorneys said Wednesday they hope the bulk of the cases, which have cost the city $14.3 million in settlements thus far, are behind the city although several remain in litigation.

The latest settlement will be paid to Robert Johnson who was pulled over August 27, 2014, by Detectives Momodu Gondo and Jemell Rayam. According to discussion during Wednesday’s meeting, Johnson was on probation when Rayam and Gondo found a gun in the vehicle he was riding in.

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Johnson pleaded guilty to a firearms charge. The charge was later withdrawn after members of the Gun Trace Task Force were prosecuted, but Johnson served four years in prison.

Johnson sued in 2019, arguing there was no probable cause for the traffic stop and alleging that Gondo planted the gun in his vehicle. The lawsuit named Gondo and Rayam as well as the Baltimore Police Department, former police Commissioners Anthony Batts and Frederick H. Bealefeld III.

City attorneys said Wednesday that it was in the city’s best interest to settle the lawsuit because the facts of the case “could be favorable” to Johnson.

The members of the Board of Estimates did not dispute the merit of the case but questioned how many more settlements the city may face. Justin Conroy, Baltimore’s deputy chief of legal affairs, said Johnson’s settlement was the 30th reached by the city.

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There are four more cases in active litigation, Conroy said. One was filed recently, one is in the discovery process, and the city has filed motions in two others attempting to have them dismissed, he said. None are currently scheduled for trial.

“Given the fact that none of the GTTF officers have been on the street since 2017, what’s the statute of limitations?” asked Comptroller Bill Henry, one of five members of the board.

“We’re making arguments that will potentially preclude future cases, but generally you are right to say that since these officers have not been arresting people since before they were indicted in February or March of 2017, it does stand to reason that hopefully the majority of these are behind us,” Conroy said.

Council President Nick Mosby, also a member of the Board of Estimates, called the settlements “inexcusable and unacceptable.” City taxpayers cannot continue to pay out such settlements, nor pensions to officers who are convicted of crimes, he said.

“Individuals who were called to protect and serve who have ... maimed or hurt our citizens, the fact that they can go on, be convicted, and, as the comptroller noted provided with defense, but more importantly for potentially the rest of their lives collect pensions, is a major, major problem and concern of mine,” Mosby said.

Neither Johnson nor his attorneys spoke Wednesday, but Latoya Francis-Williams, one of his attorneys, said earlier this week it was “much appreciated that the city is finally recognizing that even constitutional deprivations are worth something more than an insulting settlement offer.”

“Mr. Johnson was wrongfully incarcerated and has maintained his innocence,” Francis-Williams said. “He lost in terms of his reputation, in terms of his liberty, in terms of his education, and in terms of his relationship with his family. He’s trying to pick up the pieces and move on.”

Gondo pleaded guilty to various crimes committed with the unit between 2015 and 2016, but admitted to stealing money as far back as 2008. He is serving a 10-year sentence in prison. Rayam cooperated extensively with prosecutors, admitting to additional crimes and assisting in the indictment of at least four co-conspirators. He was sentenced to 12 years.

City officials initially fought their liability in the lawsuits against the Gun Trace Task Force, arguing the officers’ conduct was so far outside the “scope of employment” that an agreement with the police union to cover officers’ lawsuit damages shouldn’t apply.

But in late 2020, the Board of Estimates began settling numerous lawsuits related to the unit, the largest of which was a nearly $8 million payout to Umar Burley and Brent Matthews who served federal prison time after drugs were planted on them in 2010. That amount eclipses the settlement paid to the family of Freddie Gray in 2015.

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