The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How breakdowns in oversight allowed Prince George’s to rack up a $26 million bill on a police lawsuit

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As Prince George’s County spent more than two years and $17 million defending its police department against allegations of racism, there were few checks on how much the court fight was costing taxpayers.

Since a group of Black and Latino officers sued their own police department in the Maryland suburb in December 2018, members of the county council said their ability to watchdog spending on the lawsuit was undermined by inaccurate and incomplete information provided by the administration of County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D).

At the same time, council members largely declined to speak about the lawsuit until this spring and repeatedly did not ask Alsobrooks’s staff about expenses during public meetings.

The result: two branches of government that blame each other and themselves for not having a handle on how much the county was spending on a legal fight that will ultimately cost taxpayers more than $26 million.

Prince George’s officials and the plaintiffs settled the lawsuit recently, announcing a payout of $2.3 million to the group of officers and $5.8 million in fees and reimbursements to their attorneys — adding to the $17.6 million officials had already spent on the litigation.

In addition to not knowing the exact total of legal costs until reporters tallied the invoices, the county learned of two mistakes related to spending only after inquiries from The Washington Post. Prince George’s paid the private law firm it contracted to defend the county at least $2 million more than what was approved in contracts and addendums, as reported in June. And in July, Alsobrooks’s office acknowledged the county transferred $5 million in fiscal 2020 to pay for the lawsuit without council approval — a violation of county code.

While vowing police reform, a majority-Black county has spent $17.6 million fighting officers who allege racism

The county executive declined multiple requests for an interview. But members of her administration, in responses to written questions, attributed some of the mistakes to the timing of the lawsuit, which overlapped with the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the scope of the case, which they said was unlike anything the county’s law office had handled.

Some council members acknowledged that they could have done more to exert their oversight authority. But they said they had limited information and that Alsobrooks’s office could have been more transparent.

“We should have been better informed,” said Deni Taveras (D-District 2), the council’s vice chair. “We made the best decisions based on the information we had at hand.”

Council Chair Calvin S. Hawkins II (D-At Large) was among six council members who declined to comment for this story, including: Dannielle M. Glaros (D-District 3), Todd M. Turner (D-District 4), Rodney C. Streeter (D-District 7), Monique Anderson-Walker (D-District 8) and Sydney J. Harrison (D-District 9).

The others on the council include Taveras, Mel Franklin (D-At Large), Thomas E. Dernoga (D-District 1), Jolene Ivey (D-District 5) and Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 6). Each said they grew increasingly frustrated in recent months as they learned more about how much was spent on the litigation.

With crime on the rise and the police force the smallest it has been since 2012, Davis said that money could have been better spent elsewhere.

“We don’t have any resources,” he said, “to squander money on any frivolity.”

Contracts and costs

Within weeks of the federal lawsuit’s filing, Alsobrooks’s administration hired Venable to defend the department against accusations from Black and Latino officers who said officers of color faced systemic racism in promotions and discipline, and retaliation when they tried to speak out.

It was a no-bid contract, Alsobrooks’s administration said, because it had to move quickly.

The council was not legally required to be consulted, per county rules, nor was it legally required to review Alsobrooks’s contracts with Venable because legal services are exempt from the regular review processes that big contracts in Prince George’s go through.

By comparison, in Montgomery County the law office must receive approval from the county council before hiring outside counsel, and county attorneys regularly submit monthly memos to the council outlining outside counsel expenses.

In D.C., the council does not have to approve the hiring of outside counsel, but it does approve all contracts exceeding $1 million that the mayor’s office executes, including for legal services.

But in Prince George’s, the main oversight mechanisms for the county council on legal matters are the annual budget process and executive sessions that council leadership can call at its discretion.

It was not until February 2020 — more than one year and nearly $5 million into the legal fight — that the council requested its first executive briefing on the litigation.

It’s not clear why meetings on the matter didn’t occur earlier, and Turner, who was council chair in 2018 and 2019, was among the council members who did not respond to requests for comment.

Prince George’s will pay Black and Latino officers $2.3 million to settle police discrimination lawsuit

Council members who spoke to The Post said the updates they received from County Attorney Rhonda Weaver, five in total, were focused more on the substance of the litigation than its cost. Often, they said, the meetings would be called after media reports on the lawsuit.

Weaver informed them that defending the lawsuit was growing increasingly expensive, they said. Council members discussed spending on the lawsuit at a council meeting on the police budget in May, during which Ivey said spending came to more than $13.7 million and asked the budget director, Stanley Earley, how they could stop funding the lawsuit. He told her that the county had no choice about paying legal or settlement costs, but added that he knew neither the administration nor the council was happy with the costs.

Several council members said they did not know the exact total for the legal costs until The Post published a story in June about the spending.

Officials in Alsobrooks’s administration said that had the council asked to see the contracts during their executive sessions with Weaver, she would have provided them. They defended their budgeting practices, for which they’ve won awards, and noted that council members had numerous opportunities to ask more questions but did not.

Joy Russell, Alsobrooks’s chief of staff, said questions from The Post were the first she had heard of complaints from the council.

“When a Councilmember wants specific information, they will typically pick up the phone or send an email to us or a specific agency,” she said in a statement. “This includes regular contact with both the budget office and the Office of Law.”

But council members said given how little information they received, it would have been difficult to know what to ask — particularly when it came to budget discussions.

A county, hit by the pandemic, grapples with soaring crime after spending a decade lowering it.

Each year, every agency in Alsobrooks’s administration submits a proposed budget to the council for approval.

The administration said there have been funds for the lawsuit every year since 2019 in the police department’s budget. .

But there are no line items identifying where those funds were coming from. Post reporters began asking about line items in late April and were told twice that they existed, only to be told later they did not. Alsobrooks’s administration attributed the mistakes to confusion among staff.

The only explicit mention of the lawsuit in budget documents presented to the council came from reports by the council’s Office of Audits and Investigations on the county’s law office budget, and those figures were millions of dollars less than what that same office paid to the law firm.

The county said that a more specific breakdown of the spending is accounted for in internal budget documents, but officials have not provided those to The Post after more than two months of requests. The budget numbers that John Erzen, Alsobrooks’s deputy chief of staff, listed in a statement in response to questions from The Post reflect only a fraction of what was spent.

In fiscal 2019, Erzen said, $20,000 was budgeted — even though records show $190,000 was approved in contracts with Venable and $1.49 million was actually paid to the law firm and outside experts. In fiscal 2020, Erzen said, $100,000 was budgeted, even though records show $6 million was approved in contracts and $6.9 million was spent.

And in fiscal 2021, when $8.5 million was approved in contracts and at least $7.4 million was spent, the amount budgeted for the lawsuit was zero dollars.

Erzen said the lack of line items is normal because budgeting is not done at a granular level. The amounts budgeted internally, he said, were never intended to reflect the reality of what was being spent in a case that he described as “unpredictable and expansive.”

Council members, however, said a lack of details in the original budgets they received — coupled with a lack of clarity surrounding the money transfers that followed — made it difficult to follow the spending.

Money moves

In Prince George’s, employment-related lawsuits are not covered by the county’s liability fund. Rather, officials said, those legal costs are paid for by the agency being sued — in this case, out of the police department’s operating fund.

That pool of money, according to the budget documents, is also used to pay for technology costs, equipment maintenance and upkeep for buildings.

In fiscal 2019, when the lawsuit was filed, the county said the police department already had enough money in its operating budget to pay the $1.49 million in bills from Venable.

But in 2020, when the bills reached nearly $7 million, the county said funds in the operating budget for the lawsuit ran out.

To cover those costs, officials transferred $5 million from the department’s compensation budget, which covers salaries for officers and recruits.

Such transfers require county council approval. In this case, it never happened.

Amid a variety of pandemic-related changes to the overall budget, officials told The Post, the Office of Management and Budget inadvertently forgot to include the $5 million police budget transfer when it submitted spending legislation.

The mistake was not legal and was caught only after questions from The Post, Erzen confirmed. The council has since been alerted.

Council member Franklin wrote the law requiring approval for such budget transfers in 2013 because he was frustrated that the previous county executive’s administration was only seeking council approval after funds had been spent. The legislation says the practice of executing transactions without council approval “usurps Council authority bestowed by law, leads to poor fiscal oversight of taxpayer dollars, and is detrimental to the overall fiscal affairs of the residents of Prince George’s County.”

In fiscal 2021, the county transferred another $10 million from the compensation budget to operating to fund the lawsuit. That time, it was included in legislation, and the council unanimously approved the transfer.

But Franklin and other council members said they were not fully aware of what they were approving, partly because it was mentioned only in passing during the public meetings by staff from Alsobrooks’s administration or the council. That’s a mistake for which council members said they share blame.

“We are all accountable,” Franklin said.

However, the lack of line items in the budget and $5 million transfer that the council never approved both speak to the oversight challenges faced by the council, Dernoga said.

“You didn’t lay this out in the budget, you forgot to include the $5 million,” he said. “We would have had some prescient knowledge to ask how crazy the litigation cost is that you’re not keeping us informed about.”

Dernoga, who is a lawyer, said his priority going forward will be getting the invoices from Venable showing exactly how many lawyers were working on the case and what they were doing.

Venable declined multiple requests for comment.

“One question I want answered,” Dernoga said, “is how did Venable legitimately run up such a large bill?”

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