Updates on the secret Shapiro settlement

Keith Merryman

Keith Merryman

While Baltimore City Solicitor George A. Nilson and Steven Kupferberg, the attorney for mistakenly arrested violinist Yakov Shapiro, still differ as to the origin of the confidentiality of their settlement, allow me to offer a few updates related to the case.

There’s been a strong reader reaction to the story of Shapiro’s travail — which started when a detective investigating claims of child molestation by Yisroel Shapiro posted a warrant for Yakov Shapiro — and the city’s efforts to keep it quiet. While many Baltimore elected officials have kept to themselves about the questions the case raises about government transparency and training at the police department, a few city council members have spoken up:

  • Baltimore City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, who has taken an interest in the costs of police negligence, said last summer she understood the need for such a confidential settlement “under extraordinary circumstances, once in a blue moon.” But, she said, “this should not happen again anytime soon.” Last week, after finally hearing the details of the Shapiro case, her first reaction was “Oh my God.”

“It’s a terrible, terrible thing to happen and I would hope the necessary steps are taken so something like this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “A settlement is nice but there’s no way that that settlement can undo the damage that was done.”

“If we could all walk away from this with one lesson learned, I would hope that it would be a shared recognition of the importance of transparency in government proceedings,” Henry wrote in an e-mail Wednesday evening. “Perhaps the Board of Estimates needs to develop a better policy of how to deal with confidentiality concerns when allocating City funds. Perhaps we should be trying to record and broadcast not only the actual Board of Estimates proceedings, but the mini-meetings ahead of time when more detailed briefings are given for many of the issues before the Board.

“The Administration has claimed to be supportive of this initiative of the Council President’s (recording and broadcasting B/E meetings, Liquor Board hearings, and BMZA hearings),” Henry continued, “but also claims to be unable to come up with the operating funds needed – less than $50K – leading to the reasonable suspicion that they must be sufficiently comfortable with the status quo.”

Mr. Kupferberg has shielded Yakov Shapiro from press inquiries but he described his client’s reaction to the stories published in yesterday’s paper.

“Yakov was in here today, and I asked him if he wanted to speak to you and he started to cry,” Kupferberg said by phone from his office. “I showed him the story, and he just teared up.”

One detail I wasn’t able to determine before we published Tuesday evening was the identity of the judge who presided over Shapiro’s bail review that November morning three years ago. Well, it seems the voice on the recording was that of C. Yvonne Holt-Stone. According to an e-mail from Baltimore City District Court Administrative Judge John R. Hargrove Jr., Judge Holt-Stone was on the schedule for that morning at Central Booking, where Hargrove says Shapiro’s bail review took place. Holt-Stone, who has been on the city district court bench since 1991 is on leave through the end of the year and could not be reached to confirm her part in the case.

The other person I’ve yet to hear from is Baltimore City Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. He was at the White House yesterday and is out of the office through Christmas, according to his spokesman.

I’m less optimistic about ever hearing from Detective Keith Merryman (who posted the warrant for Yakov Shapiro instead of the real offender, Yisroel Shapiro) or police lawyer Neal M. Janey Jr., who negotiated the settlement, but stay tuned on those fronts.

Artist's court sketch of Yisroel Shapiro (left, with glasses and Kippah)

Finally, if you’re interested in learning more about Yisroel Shapiro and how his misdeeds came to light in the generally close-knit and tight-lipped Orthodox Jewish community, have a look at Standing Silent, a documentary that will premier at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in February. Phil Jacobs, the executive editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times who has covered the topic extensively, stars in the film.

Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays!

Now entering their appearances…new Prince George’s corruption counsel!

A month and a half ago I wrote about the addition of a young but high-profile lawyer to the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s office, Leo J. Wise.

When U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein told me Wise, who policed Congressional ethics for the past couple of years, would prosecute white-collar crime as an AUSA, the bribery case against state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s) and a pair of Shoppers Food executives immediately came to mind.

Well, Wise entered his appearance in Maryland’s federal court for the first time this week, and, sure enough, one of the two (sets of) cases on his personal docket is the Currie-Shoppers prosecution.

Presumably, no one will disassemble the U.S. Attorney’s office (as certain members of Congress reportedly have suggested re: the OCE) before trial in the case next summer…

Of course, Rosenstein’s office’s other major political corruption prosecution (and ongoing investigation) also involves Prince George’s County, and there was attorney news in that cluster of cases, too, this week.

In case you’ve been asleep for the past month, County Executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife, Leslie, were arrested Nov. 12 after the FBI overheard the couple scrambling to hide nearly $80,000 in cash and a check for $100,000 in, um, various places.

Prominent defense attorney William R. “Billy” Martin, who has defended people like Michael Vick and the mayor of Atlanta, seemed an appropriate person to represent Jack Johnson, but few had heard of Leslie Johnson’s counsel, Owings Mills attorney Roland N. Patterson Jr.

Apparently the county councilwoman-elect decided she needed a little more heft to protect her from federal prosecutors because this week a big-firm attorney, whose office is in the Watergate building no less, entered her appearance on behalf of Mrs. Johnson. Perhaps not coincidentally, Shawn M. Wright is a partner at Martin’s old firm, Blank Rome LLP.

So, dear readers, do you think these these personnel moves will significantly impact the evolution and outcome of these cases or were these politicos’ looking at jail time regardless of any clever attorney’s maneuvering?

Justice decayed, answers to questions of feasbility delayed

Everyone agrees the Baltimore City Circuit Court buildings are “absolutely terrible” and that a new courthouse is in order, the city’s administrative judge declared at a meeting of city and state criminal justice officials last fall.

To this end, the city and its circuit court ponied up between $600,000 and $700,000 for a Maryland Stadium Authority-picked consultant to study the upgrade possibilities.

At that same September 2009 Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting, the representative from Los Angeles-based consultancy AECOM Inc. promised a final report with recommendations by this past spring.

In January, MSA spokeswoman Jan Hardesty offered assurances of that schedule.

“It’s on course, it’s on schedule,” Hardesty said. “It should be out in early spring.”

When nothing came out by June, I spoke with Judge Marcella Holland, the city’s administrative judge, who told me the study’s publication date was more likely to be late summer. When it still wasn’t out by late September, I asked again after its progress. The latest update came Friday from MSA Project Executive Gary A. McGuigan, who acknowledged the delay but said such an important matter should not be rushed.

“It’s still going to be a little bit,” he said. “My best guess right now is it’s probably going to be the end of the year.

“It’s very complicated. It’s a very large report, and we want to make sure we get this thing right,” McGuigan explained. “It’s taken longer than I had hoped, but like I said, we want to get this thing right.”

So, given that it’s already been several years that litigants, lawyers, judges, courthouse employees and members of the public have had to deal with a decaying — if still stately in some ways — pair of courthouses, and it won’t be several more years (or, God forbid, decades) until the problem is properly solved, what’s another year or so (and a half million dollars) more spent putting a plan together?

Law blog roundup: A move worth its SALT?

Happy Monday! Here are some law blog posts for you to digest before you head downy ocean for the MSBA annual meeting:

  • Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez has been teaching political science at Texas Tech University and peddling an autobiography, but he hasn’t been able to get a publisher to bite. “Given all the decisions that I was a part of, the decisions I witnessed, and the decisions I made, I think it will be something that will be of interest and I hope it will be a useful contribution to the historic record of the Bush legacy,” Gonzales tells Main Justice. Gonzalez is hoping book sales might generate some cash to cover his legal bills, which are extensive given the ongoing investigation into the attorney general firings that happened during his term. Would you plop down $25 for the hardcover?
  • Our sister blog, DC Dicta, aggregates the latest commentary and analysis on the Kagan papers, the 46,000 pages of documents released Friday covering Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s work in the Clinton administration. Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions tells Reuters he’s already spotted “a leftist philosophy and an approach to the law that seems more concerned with achieving a desired social result than fairly following the Constitution.” Should make for an interesting Senate confirmation hearing, which is scheduled to start June 28.
  • Not only do Wall Street bankers make scads of money, they’re also too attractive? (Hat Tip: Dealbreaker)
  • The Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) wants law schools to quit giving LSAT scores to U.S. News, which publishes highly influential annual college rankings. SALT believes the pressure to nab students with high test scores is undercutting efforts to admit diverse classes. Above the Law has its own take: “You gotta love it when a bunch of law professors get in a room and collectively decide that silence is what prospective law students are really looking for these days.”

A history lesson from Gov. Mandel

My cover story in Monday’s Maryland Lawyer about the Sunnyside church talks about state law governing corporate and property rights of religious entities. There was one question I could not answer before my deadline: where did this 1976 law come from?

(Unfortunately, there is no quick link to the statute. If you want to see it, click here, then “Maryland Code”, “Corporations and Associations,” “Title 5. Special Types of Corporations,” “Subtitle 3. “Religious Corporations.”)

I had heard that former Gov. Marvin Mandel testified in the General Assembly on the law’s history this past session. Mandel told me Monday the same thing he told the House Committee about the law.

“I still think it’s unconstitutional,” he said. “The state shouldn’t get involved in religion.”

Yet it was Mandel who introduced the legislation at the request of the Episcopal Church, which was having an “internal battle over its assets.” He said he made his reservations about the bill known, but ultimately signed it into law because the factions had decided the bill was best the way to solve the problem. (For what it’s worth, Mandel is Jewish.)

The Sunnyside case is the first time in 35 years legislators looked at a law Mandel thought would have been long gone from the books by now.

“No one’s questioned it up until this time,” he said. “I was surprised no one stepped forward and contested it.”

The former governor added that he would be keeping an eye on the Sunnyside case as it makes its way through the courts.

Womble Womble, O’Malley fall down?

When former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich opened the Baltimore office of Womble Carlyle about a month after leaving office three years ago, taking key legal and public relations staff with him, there were those who wondered about the move: Was it a law office, or campaign headquarters?

The Maryland Democratic Party has wondered more vocally over the years, and according to the Baltimore Sun’s Maryland Politics blog, took formal action Thursday by writing to the state Board of Elections, challenging the propriety of the arrangement in light of Ehrlich’s expected return to the political sphere.

Words will never hurt you?

Ohio State law professor Christopher M. Fairman offered his take Sunday about the controversy over the use of the word “retard.” Fairman said he would not be signing a petition championed by the Special Olympics to ban the use of “the r-word,” which is not surprising considering he is the author of this book.

There were two main points I took away from Fairman’s essay in The Washington Post:

  1. “Words themselves are not the culprit; the meaning we attach to them is, and such meanings change dramatically over time and across communities”
  2. “Invariably, negative connotations materialize around whatever new word is used. …This illustrates one of the recurring follies of speech restriction: While there may be another word to use, a negative connotation eventually is found. Offense – both given and taken – is inevitable.”

Fairman also notes courts have found government-backed “speech codes” unconstitutional.

Reaction to Fairman’s essay has been strong, including opposing views from Post columnist Michael Gerson and Timothy Shriver, president of the Special Olympics. And perhaps the most prominent opponent of the word “retard” lately has been Sarah Palin.

Washington Post readers had a chance to respond to Fairman as well during an online chat. What do you think of his position? Should “the r-word” be considered on par with “the n-word”?

God and the oath of office

As if this article about the challenges being made against a “post-theist” councilman in Asheville weren’t interesting enough, there’s also the Maryland connection. As the story notes, Maryland is one of a handful of states with a constitutional clause requiring “a declaration of belief in the existence of God” from state office-holders (see Article 37 of the Declaration of Rights).

Rest assured, the Free State hasn’t tried to enforce the requirement since 1961, when the U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in Torcaso v. Watkins, a case involving a Maryland notary public. In 1978 — a mere 17 years later – the wording of the oath of office was changed in response to Torcaso, but Article 37 has never been amended to delete the requirement itself. That’s understandable, given the difficulties of amending the state constitution. Can you imagine getting 60% of the state’s lawmakers to back the idea of excising God from anything, let alone the Declaration of Rights? My guess is that it would have been easier back in the ’60s.

The menu on Death Row

Slate had an interesting story yesterday about the last meals of death row inmates in anticipation of convicted “Beltway Sniper” John Allen Muhammad’s execution last night in Virginia. (Muhammad chose not to reveal his last meal to the public.)

The Slate story provided links to the Web site of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which posted the final meals requested by offenders until 2004, and continues to post their final statements.  Psalm 23 appeared to be a popular choice judging by a random sample. (Muhammad “ignored a request” to make a final statement, according to news reports.)

The Texas sites are eerie and chilling. Delbert Teague Jr., for example, was executed in 1998 for murdering a Fort Worth man in 1985. He did not request a final meal, but at the “last minute he decided to eat a hamburger at his mother’s request,” according to records. His last statement was as follows:

I have come here today to die, not make speeches. Today is a good day for dying.

Est Sularus Oth Mithas (My Honor Is My Life).

As someone commented on the Slate story, “there is something disgustingly voyeuristic about it all.”

In Praise of Moot-Court Judging

On Saturday, I spent a rejuvenating morning serving as a judge for the semi-final round of a moot-court competition hosted by American University’s Washington College of Law.

My service to the Burton D. Wechsler First Amendment Moot Court Competition stirred me in three ways:

1. It made me feel 20 years younger, when I nervously stood as a law student waiting to be grilled by “judges” at the same school;

2. It enabled me to step out of the role of spectator (I have reported on oral arguments for two decades) and participate in the enterprise; and

3. As a husband — and father of a teen and a tween — it was refreshing to have people listen to me and answer my questions.

It also didn’t hurt that the fact pattern and issue were right up my alley.

The head of research and development at a major high-tech company was suing for libel a blogger who had accused him online of running a Mumbaian sweatshop where child laborers built computer components.

The issue before the moot court was whether the company executive qualified as a “public figure” or “private person” under the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence, a critical distinction that largely determines who wins the case.

Public figures, to prove libel, have the heavy burden of showing that the reporter wrote an erroneous story either knowing it was false or with a reckless disregard for the truth.  Private individuals need only show that the journalist was negligent in reporting a story that was  untrue.

The three-judge panel on which I served — as “chief” no less — ruled for the reporter. Imagine that.