Anne Arundel County hired a private, $450-an-hour lawyer to defend County Executive John R. Leopold in a discrimination lawsuit, ringing up a $20,743 bill to taxpayers in two weeks and raising questions about whether the embattled politician should pay the growing tab.
Before August, county attorneys spent two years defending Leopold and the county government against a claim that Leopold created a hostile work environment for women and fired a press aide who complained. But about two weeks after four officers gave depositions saying that Leopold directed police to ensure the woman did not have a job, the county determined that Leopold's interests and its own were no longer the same.
“As far as I'm concerned, the county has an obligation to pay for outside counsel, and that's what we're doing,” County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson said.
Experts agreed that state laws require the county to provide Leopold's defense. The price tag — with the expectation it will rise — has sparked concerns about a taxpayer backlash and fears the costs will get out of control.
“This certainly can't make the voters of Anne Arundel County any happier,” Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, said.
“Even before he's gone to trial, people have become angry with him,” Crenson added. ”And now they're being expected to finance his defense? From the first billable hour, I think it's too much.”
James Browning of Common Cause, a nonprofit citizen advocacy organization, said the decision also limits the county's ability to control the legal tab.
“It's like outsourcing any other kind of work: You lose the system of checks and balances to keep costs down,” Browning said.
County officials on Tuesday would not provide a copy of the bill for the Washington-based Thatcher Law Firm's services between Aug. 17 and Aug. 31. Officials said Leopold personally picked the firm from recommendations made by the county's Office of Law.
The $450 hourly rate for managing partner Linda Hitt Thatcher and $350 hourly rate for attorney Robert J. Baror are within the market rate for labor lawyers defending an employer, according to Andrew M. Dansicker, president of the Maryland Employment Lawyers Association.
“The one group of people who are better off today than when Leopold started are attorneys,” said Cpl. O'Brien Atkinson, head of the county's police union, which has been fighting Leopold for raises for officers.
Through a spokesman, Leopold declined to answer questions about the bill or whether he considered paying the tab himself. His spokesman issued a statement that “the Local Government Tort Claims Act, which is a state law, requires a local government to defend employees when they are sued for actions within the scope of their employment.”
Hodgson, the county attorney, said the law and the facts of the case now require different attorneys for Leopold and the county government, but he would not specify what changed. Leopold and the county have denied wrongdoing in the lawsuit.
Like separating defendants in a criminal case, the move also gives the government leeway to make arguments that aren't in the county executive's best interest, said Karen J. Kruger, a Baltimore attorney specializing in government law and a former senior attorney for Harford County.
Kruger said that while the law requires the county to provide an attorney, it also can protect the county from paying damages if a court finds an employee acted beyond the scope of his or her employment or with malice.
“Sometimes the nature of the case is so complicated and so huge that the county and the employee would be better served by outside counsel,” said Linda Schuett, who served as county attorney before Hodgson. "Or there could be a conflict of interest."
Former Anne Arundel county executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat who considered running against Leopold, called the recent bill “outrageous.”
“It's hard on the taxpayers,” Owens said. “And for someone who has for 25 years portrayed himself as a fiscal conservative, it's hard to swallow. This has just all got to end. It is so taxing to county government, and county employees, it's demoralizing. And it's embarrassing to the county.”
The discrimination lawsuit is separate from the criminal misconduct case pending against the county executive, who has also denied wrongdoing in that case. Like other Maryland officials accused of criminal misconduct, including former Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon, Leopold's criminal defense attorney is not paid with public money.
Leslie Knapp Jr., legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties, said it is not unusual for governments to call in outside lawyers when a conflict of interest occurs.
It's also common for governments to hire specialists for certain types of lawsuits, said James P. Peck, director of research and information management for the Maryland Municipal League. "When you go for an operation, you'd like to have a doctor who's performed that operation before," Peck said. “It's the same sort of thing.”
While the government's required to pay for outside counsel, the law is likely to come as a surprise to taxpayers, said Dan Nataf, a political science professor at Anne Arundel Community College.
“The question, ‘How much does it cost?’ is the second realization in the dawning that the county is picking up the tab,” Nataf said. “It seems like both the [county] council and the public is realizing that there's a financial hit that they're likely to take.”
County law does not require any employee to repay legal costs. A bill pending before the council would change that, and the county could sue guilty employees to recoup the loss. Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat from Crownsville who co-sponsored the legislation, does not take issue with the cost of Leopold's attorney unless he's found responsible in the case.
“That's what an experienced trial attorney costs," he said. "What happens after the defense concludes? Then who pays the bill?"
Roy T. Meyers, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, questioned whether the county would afford the same level or representation to any employee.
“What level of defense is a county executive entitled to?” Meyers said. “The question to ask is whether a mid-level supervisor, say in the public works department, accused of the same pattern of behavior would have received the same level of defense.”
Hodgson, the county attorney, said the county would provide the same defense to any employee facing the same circumstances.