Lawyer Lance Billingsley, a top adviser to Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, represented two of the three parties involved in the county's purchase of a $3 million building partly owned by a longtime client of his firm.
Billingsley served as co-bond counsel to the county's Industrial Revenue Authority, which bought the building. He served as counsel to the bond underwriter. His firm also is the longtime legal counsel for College Park builder Irving Kidwell, one of the building's owners.
Billingsley said yesterday there was no conflict of interest in his legal work on the complicated transaction. He said that while Kidwell is a client on other matters, he did not represent the builder's interests in the sale of the small Upper Marlboro office building, located steps from the county administration building.
Billingsley also said he received written clearance from both the authority and the underwriters allowing him to represent their separate interests.
"My actions were completely divulged and approved by all parties," he said.
Some lawyers call it unusual for a private lawyer to serve as counsel to both a bonding authority and the bond underwriters, which purchases the bonds at a discount and then resells them, because the two have different legal responsibilities and often serve to check each other's work.
"It's unusual in my experience to see this. If you're wearing two hats and decide that something is not important, then there's nobody there to test it. It's like walking on landmines. You walk around them, not on them," said Baltimore lawyer Patrick Ayer, a leader in the field of ethics and public disclosure by bond lawyers.
A chief fund-raiser and chairman of Glendening's reelection campaign, Billingsley also serves as the Glendening-appointed chairman of the county's Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit group that recruits industry for the county.
Glendening's spokeswoman, Rebecca Reid, said politics played no role in the purchase of the Kidwell building.
Billingsley's firm -- Meyers, Billingsley, Shipley & Curry -- benefited from a Glendening initiative to give more county legal work to local lawyers. The Billingsley firm is counsel to the county Housing Authority and the Parking Authority, a group that issues bonds for construction of parking facilities.
In the purchase of the Kidwell building, Billingsley played a key role in dealing with county officials and communicating information to the chief bond counsel, Piper & Marbury, of Baltimore. Part of Billingsley's job was to assure potential bond purchasers and the underwriters, Baker, Watts & Co., that bonds sold for the purchase accurately reflected the building's value.
Billingley said he had "complete trust" in the opinion of county officials who negotiated the sales price and saw no reason to conduct an independent assessment of the building's worth.
Billingsley also said he was not bothered by the fact that one of Kidwell's partners in the building was James Novak, director of the county Department of Public Works. Novak held a 10 percent interest in the Marlboro Joint Venture, the partnership that owned the building.
Although some lawyers say they would have divulged the involvement of a government official in official statements issued in connection with the bond sale, Billingsley said he saw no reason to do so. Ronald Sheff, a Piper & Marbury lawyer who worked on the transaction, said he was never informed of Novak's role in the partnership.
"They could take the proceeds and give them to Al Capone," Billingsley said. "What would that matter as long as the underlying transaction is proper and the bondholder is informed of the fact that the bonds are fully insured?"
Keith Quinney, a Tallahassee, Fla., lawyer who is president of the National Federation of Municipal Analysts, said that when he prepares bond offerings, "My tendency is to put in things like this and explain them away so that if anything goes wrong you don't have anyone saying, 'Why wasn't it in there?' "
Glendening authorized the building's purchase from the Marlboro Joint Venture and set up the special bonding authority so the county could acquire the building without a public referendum.
County officials said they took the action because of an "urgent need" for more space in the building, more than half of which was already leased by the county. They said they paid Kidwell's full $3 million asking price because of the pressing need to acquire the structure and the owner's demand that they act quickly.
Deputy County Administrator Robert Duncan said the county could have negotiated a lower price if it had more time to complete the purchase. Although sales prices of properties often differ from their assessed tax values, county tax assessors placed the building's value at $2 million at the time of the sale.
Kidwell, a major Democratic Party fund-raiser and longtime Glendening supporter, said the county bought the building at a bargain price. And both he and Novak said there was no conflict of interest posed by Novak's part-ownership of the building, a share he acquired while working as an officer for Kidwell's construction firm.