Maryland Stadium Authority's Hiring of Law Firm Assailed
Sunday, October 2, 2005
Top state lawyers believe the Maryland Stadium Authority improperly paid more than $100,000 to a prominent Baltimore attorney and close ally of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s to prepare a possible lawsuit against Major League Baseball to block the arrival of the Washington Nationals.
The stadium authority, an independent state agency that owns Oriole Park at Camden Yards, paid lawyers in the Baltimore law firm of William H. Murphy Jr. $111,475 for just more than four months of work ending in March, according to an internal authority memorandum provided to The Washington Post.
Officials at the Maryland attorney general's office said the no-bid contract did not follow state procurement law, which requires state lawyers to sign off before any agency hires private attorneys. The reason for the rule is cost. State lawyers are salaried, while private attorneys typically charge hourly fees. The stadium authority paid lawyers in Murphy's firm as much as $685 an hour, according to billing records.
The stadium authority's executive director yesterday disputed the assertion that the contract was improper, saying the authority is not subject to state procurement law and routinely hires outside attorneys for a range of purposes.
Executive Director Alison L. Asti said she decided to hire Murphy's firm only because the work was urgent and she was advised that the state's lawyers were too busy. "It is routine for us to use outside counsel," she said. "Completely routine."
Asti said she believes any impropriety would have been flagged by state auditors, who have been closely monitoring the authority's activities since a Feb. 12, 2004, state audit found that the authority did not follow proper procedures in awarding $66 million in construction projects. That disclosure prompted a federal inquiry and led to the resignation of Asti's predecessor.
Murphy, a flamboyant trial lawyer who first made his name representing boxing promoter Don King, built a practice that includes such large corporate clients as Microsoft. He said he and Ehrlich (R) are longtime friends and frequent political allies.
The law firm William H. Murphy Jr. & Associates was retained last November to prepare for a suit based on the concern that a Washington team could reduce the Baltimore Orioles' attendance and cut into revenue at Camden Yards. Part of that revenue goes to the state.
The suit never was filed because Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos settled his dispute with Major League Baseball. Murphy later represented Angelos in a suit against Comcast over cable television rights to Nationals games.
Murphy said that he figures it was his firm's reputation that won it the work and that he does not have any reason to believe Ehrlich intervened on his behalf.
"I've never had a conversation with the governor about my retention. I didn't ask for it, and he didn't offer it," Murphy said.
Maureen M. Dove, the deputy attorney general who oversees litigation for the office, said the state's procurement law is explicit about hiring outside counsel, especially on a "sole source" contract -- one that is not put out for bids -- such as the one used to hire Murphy's firm.