After practicing law for more than 30 years, you'd think Johnnie Cochran would have seen it all by now.
Yet even the famed Los Angeles lawyer was impressed with the way Montgomery County officials speedily agreed to a $2 million settlement with the family of a Wheaton man who was accidentally killed by a police officer in the spring.
Though Cochran became a celebrity as part of O.J. Simpson's defense team, he has been handling civil rights cases in California for more than 30 years. In the spring, he arrived in Montgomery as part of the litigation team representing the family of Junious Roberts.
"The officials in Montgomery County were extraordinary," he said, praising in particular County Council President Isiah Leggett (D-At Large), County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and County Attorney Charles W. Thompson Jr. "I handle a lot of these cases around the country, and they did step up to the plate and indicate a willingness to try to put this matter behind the county and to make some changes."
William H. Murphy, who along with lawyer Walter Blair rounded out the team in the Roberts case, called the official response a "unique" aspect of this police brutality suit.
"Time and again when you have brutality cases in municipalities, counties and states, there is hostility from local and state governments about the whole notion that brutality exists," Murphy said. "Montgomery County had an exceptionally different response. I want to thank County Executive Duncan and Chuck Thompson for the enlightened approach that they took to this case."
Murphy also called Cochran "the greatest lawyer in the history of America."
County officials, who already had been reeling from years of allegations of racism against county police officers, agreed this month to the settlement before the Roberts case even got to court. Under the agreement, $667,000 of that amount will go to pay the three lawyers, with an additional $25,000 kicked in for their expenses.
In addition, the county agreed to spend an additional $1 million to promote "better gender and racial harmony and respect" between the police department and the public, including funds for installing video cameras on patrol cars, sensitivity training and minority recruitment.
That $1 million will have to be approved by the County Council. But the lawyers had a message for the county should there be any problem with that:
"If it's not [approved], watch out," Murphy said. "We'll be back."
Prince George's state Del. Dereck Davis wants his fellow pols to slow down and not rush to any conclusions about what, if anything, should be done when it comes to privatization and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which provides water and sewer service to Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
In a letter addressed to Prince George's House delegation Chairman Rushern L. Baker III (D) and sent to all members of the county's delegation, Davis, who is chairman of the Bi-County Committee, said he planned to lead the committee "in an extremely deliberate and judicious manner."
"This is a process that simply cannot be rushed no matter how impatient interested stakeholders may get," wrote Davis (D), whose committee deals with legislation that affects Prince George's and Montgomery. "Therefore I intend to make it clear to everyone that the Bi-County Committee will not act upon any legislation regarding the privatization of WSSC until we are comfortable that we have a comprehensive understanding of those issues."
The letter appeared to be directed at Del. John A. Giannetti Jr. (D-Prince George's), who announced at a hearing last month that he planned to draft legislation that would put the utility on the market.
A 15-member task force is studying privatization and has until Sept. 1 to submit its findings to the Maryland General Assembly, which will ultimately decide the agency's future.
Davis said in an interview that his letter wasn't directed exclusively at Giannetti.
"I started to get the feeling that opinions were being formed about this one way or the other, and we clearly weren't far enough along in the process for that," Davis said. "Some people already have made up their minds in advance, and this is too big of an issue to do that."
Center of the Universe
The gang was all there: county executives, county commissioners, legislators, governor's staff and, of course, the lobbyists--who are attracted to all those politicians and policymakers like teenage girls flock to the Backstreet Boys.
In all, more than 850 of them gathered at the Ocean City Convention Center late last week for a combination convention, trade show and major schmooze session of the Maryland Association of Counties.
"For a few days in . . . August, this is the political center of the universe in Maryland," said Michael Morrill, spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who, yep, was there, too. In fact, for the 25th year. Glendening was twice the organization's president when he was Prince George's county executive.
He loves these sorts of organizations--he's just been elected vice chairman of the National Governors Association and is in line to become chairman next year. And Maryland's on a roll in such things: Last month, Howard County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray (D-East Columbia) was elected president of the National Association of Counties and was feted at a Friday night party at the convention center.
As governor, Glendening makes the keynote speech at the Ocean City convention. This year, he told the crowd that the state would give them more flexibility with education aid to encourage renovation of existing schools; the current system makes building brand new schools more attractive. As you might imagine, telling a ballroom of people that you're making it easier for them to spend money went over big.
There also was partying--the governor, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) threw receptions. So did the state's major lobbyists. There was a golf tournament sponsored by the lobbying firm of Evans and Stierhoff and a crab feast overlooking Assawoman Bay, with Dixieland music by the Backfin Banjo Band featuring Wicomico County Administrator Matthew Creamer.
"Like so much in life, politics is relationships. You're developing relationships here," said Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D), who is trying to develop his relationships as he contemplates a run for governor in 2002.
Also going over big were all the freebies. From leather gloves to rubber crabs to crab mallets, folks went home with their pockets full. A host of companies, including telecommunications corporations, emergency management systems manufacturers, retirement plans advisers and software makers were on hand peddling their wares to the county officials.
The last election made for more than a 50 percent turnover in county officials, so there also were lots of seminars to bring the new politicos up to speed.
"There's a schmooze factor, but even more critical is the business factor. It gives you an opportunity to pigeonhole decision-makers. You have access to all the decision-makers in the state," said David Bliden, the association's executive director. "You can't stay in your county seat and do the job and be effective. The world's too complicated."
Friends in High Places
Howard County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, the newly sworn-in president of the National Association of Counties (NACo), has been busy stocking the group's committees with some of his county colleagues.
Among those appointed to new leadership roles in the organization is County Executive James N. Robey (D), who will serve as vice chairman of the Justice and Public Safety Committee's law enforcement subcommittee. Robey, in his first term as county executive, is a former Howard police chief.
Gray (D-East Columbia) was sworn in as NACo president in July. Since then, he has appointed or reappointed leaders for each of the group's 28 caucuses and committees. In addition, he recently tapped county spokeswoman Victoria Hastings Goodman for a spot on NACo's Arts and Culture Commission. The commission was created in 1997 to promote county policies and programs for arts. Columbia resident Mary Toth, president of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, also serves on the commission.
NACo spokesman Shawn Bullard said with membership of more than 1,800 counties, the organization's committee leaders come from all over the country. But, he said, "It's not rare for a president to select individuals from his own state."
Staff writer Angela Paik contributed to this column.