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.
"The law says they can only go outside for counsel with prior written approval" from the attorney general's office, Dove said.
At the stadium authority's request, the attorney general's office had started researching the legal issues surrounding a potential suit over the Montreal Expos franchise moving to Washington. Dove said authority officials told her to put the work on hold, "and that's the last we heard of it. But nothing at that time suggested we couldn't handle the work ourselves."
Asti, the stadium authority executive director, said in a series of interviews that she was under an entirely different impression.
She said she first sought the state's lawyers to research the matter but was told the governor's office did not want them to be distracted from work they were doing relating to Ehrlich's legal dispute with the Baltimore Sun. The attorney general's office was "extremely busy," Asti said.
She made the same assertion in a May 3 memo she wrote to authority board members in which she explained the legal expenses.
Reached yesterday, authority Chairman Carl A.J. Wright said he has confidence that Asti is correct.
"I know we've done this in the past, where we feel we need some special or unique talent. I don't think this is unique," Wright said.
"I feel very comfortable in our decision to hire Billy [Murphy]," Wright said.
Wright said the contract was not required to be put to a board vote, but board members discussed the matter in closed session before Murphy was retained.
Strictly from a cost standpoint, the outside firm was almost certainly more expensive than state lawyers would have been, Dove said. "Everyone in the attorney general's office is paid a state salary," she said. "It's not $685 an hour, believe me."
The disagreement over hiring Murphy's firm appears to tap into a long-developing rift between the executive branch and the attorney general's office in Maryland. Ehrlich and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. have clashed repeatedly over the past two years.
Curran, a Democrat who is in his fifth term as attorney general, is considering a bid next year for a sixth term. Ehrlich is the state's first Republican governor in a generation.
The political brew is thickened by the fact that Curran's daughter is married to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), who last week announced his bid to unseat Ehrlich.
Curran has said that politics do not factor into how he runs the office.
Asti said she does not recall who first recommended Murphy's firm: "I had a discussion with my board members, and everyone agreed that was the right team."
Jervis S. Finney, the governor's general counsel, worked with Murphy and his associates for four months reviewing the possible lawsuit. Billing records provided to The Post show that Finney and attorneys from Murphy's firm participated in nine conference calls to discuss the matter, including several that lasted more than two hours.
Finney said he worked "collaterally" with Murphy's firm. Asked whether the governor recommended the firm be hired, Finney replied, "I don't think I ought to get into that."