Baltimore's City Council leaders say they plan to block Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposal to pay $2 million to outside lawyers to represent the city during a federal investigation of the Police Department.
The move by City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Vice President Edward Reisinger and others puts in jeopardy a $6.4 million settlement with the family of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who died in police custody in April. The Rawlings-Blake administration put the legal fees and the Gray settlement in a single spending bill.
"We support the money for Freddie Gray's family," Reisinger said. "But the $2 million [in outside legal fees] leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Either it's two separate bills or it's going nowhere. We have the votes to do what we need to do."
Young said he believes the administration wants outside lawyers to act as defense attorneys in the city's dealings with the U.S. Department of Justice.
"We have concerns," he said. "We called in the Justice Department to implement changes, not to fight against what they're recommending."
The Board of Estimates voted 4-1 Wednesday to pay the Washington-based firm WilmerHale $2 million over a 14-month period, ending in June. But the spending needs City Council approval because it is an amendment to the current budget.
The administration has agreed to pay the lawyers $400 to $800 an hour. Since the city retained the firm in May, its attorneys have helped provide the Justice Department 60,000 pages of documents and 800,000 emails, according to City Solicitor George Nilson. They also have accompanied up to 18 city employees a day to interviews with investigators, he said.
The mayor's office has coupled the payment to the lawyers with a $6.4 million settlement payment for Gray's family. Gray's death in April sparked protests and rioting across the city. The first of six officers charged in connection with his arrest and death is currently on trial.
Mayoral spokesman Howard Libit said Young was briefed on the firm's hiring in June and knew "the firm was going to be expensive."
"There was no objection raised at that time," Libit said. "In something this significant for the city and the Police Department, it's critical that you bring in people who have the expertise to give you the best possible response. … When the council president and other council members were calling for the Justice Department to investigate, what did they expect it would mean it terms of cost?"
Libit said he wasn't sure the two items could be separated since they passed the Board of Estimates as a single spending proposal.
"We hope we will be able to talk to the council and explain to them the value of what WilmerHale has brought to the investigation," Libit said. "We hope they will understand these are well-spent legal dollars and they will come around to making the right decision for our city. The responsible thing for the council to do is fulfill the city's obligations."
A federal probe has been underway since last fall, just days after The Baltimore Sun reported that the city had paid millions in recent years on court judgments and settlements in more than 100 lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct. After Gray's death, that review was expanded into a full-scale civil rights investigation of the Police Department.
Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday the stakes were too high for the city to have shopped around for cheaper counsel. She said the city does not have enough lawyers on staff to adequately handle the demands of the investigation."
We want to make sure we get this right for the city of Baltimore, and that doesn't mean doing it on the cheap," she said.
About 10 city attorneys are working alongside WilmerHale lawyers on the investigation.