Mary Pat & District 14 IN THE NEWS


City agency director has law firm with state contract on the side

Doug Donovan and Mark Puente | March 30, 2015, 2:36PM
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The director of Baltimore's floundering CitiStat agency has been operating a private legal practice that works for state government under a contract that could be worth nearly $1 million, according to public records.

Aides to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who appointed Mark H. Grimes as CitiStat director in January 2014, have said the Cabinet official was winding down his outside legal work as he overhauls the data-driven agency that aims to make government more efficient and hold employees accountable.

But a Baltimore Sun investigation has found that Grimes' private practice that he runs with his wife has charged the state thousands of hours on hundreds of cases since it landed a contract with the Maryland Department of Human Resources in August 2013 — five months before he started the $124,000-a-year CitiStat job.

Grimes' dual roles raise questions about how he has been able to juggle a private practice while working for taxpayers, especially as the CitiStat program has come under fire for failing to hold regular meetings and produce reports, even as its budget has doubled to $1 million under the mayor. No other Cabinet member lists other employment or a business that is still operating on their disclosure forms.

"It is understood that agency heads are presumed to be dedicating their total work time to the agency," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who is convening a hearing to examine CitiStat's operations and Grimes' outside work. "It requires that kind of commitment."

Operating a legal practice "is not appropriate even in the role of staff attorney, let alone as a Cabinet official," Clarke said. "It's important to understand that he is engaged full time at what is a very important function of city government."

Kevin Harris, Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, said the mayor knew about the state contract and that it does not violate any rules in her administration. Harris said it is unfair to single out Grimes when other city workers and City Council members have second jobs. Council positions are considered part-time jobs and pay $63,000 a year.

"She didn't go through the specifics of the work he did," Harris said about the mayor. "She wanted to make sure it didn't affect his ability to do CitiStat. We have not seen where the contract has distracted him from his work. He is well within his rights."

Grimes, who has worked for city government for 10 years, did not respond to requests for comment on the state contract; Harris said he was speaking on Grimes' behalf, too.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, questioned the outside employment and the way the state contract was awarded.

The mayor's sister-in-law, Teminka Rawlings, deputy director of the state agency's legal services program, oversaw the yearlong bidding process that hired Grimes' law practice and six other firms to represent disabled adults in guardianship cases in circuit courts across Maryland.

"There definitely seems to be a conflict-of-interest concern," Bevan-Dangel said. "He's been hired by one family member and given a contract by another family member.

"For someone to have that level of a position and have a very significant side practice is in itself very questionable," Bevan-Dangel said.

Harris said it is unfair to make that connection.

"The mayor at no time asked her sister-in-law to intervene in any way with respect to this contract," Harris said. "This is a mayor who is a strong believer in disclosure."

Paula Tolson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources, said that while Teminka Rawlings was "acting director" when the contract was awarded by the Board of Public Works, she did not sit on the committee that reviewed the bids and recommended who should be awarded the contracts.

This is not the first time Grimes has been questioned about his law practice. He left his previous job as a city attorney in December 2013 amid concerns that he spent too much time on his private practice, according to sources with direct knowledge of the matter. The sources requested anonymity because it was a personnel matter.

The Baltimore Law Department, which represents the mayor and city agencies, banned its lawyers from performing outside work several years ago. Several city lawyers hired before 2008, including Grimes, were exempt from the ban. The policy says such outside legal work should be limited and attorneys should periodically update the city solicitor on the extent of the practice.

Policies for outside legal work by government lawyers differ in local jurisdictions. Anne Arundel County lawyers cannot perform the work for pay but can give legal advice to relatives without going to court. Baltimore County lawyers can do outside legal work as long as it is "generally paper-intensive" and does not require long-term litigation, Baltimore County Attorney Mike Field said.

The mayor's office declined to comment on Grimes' employment at the Law Department. In an interview for a previous article, Grimes declined to answer questions about his position at the Law Department except to say that his departure was driven by a "time for a change" in jobs.

The mayor appointed Grimes on Jan. 21, two weeks after the previous CitiStat director resigned rather than accept the mayor's offer to transfer him to a new job.

Grimes came under scrutiny this month after a Baltimore Sun investigation showed that CitiStat was failing to meet its own performance standards even as the mayor bragged about its effectiveness. On Monday, City Council members finalized the details for a hearing they plan to hold next month to examine the agency's operations.

The Sun's investigation found that Grimes canceled one-third of the CitiStat meetings last year. Routine meetings requiring city bureaucrats to answer to key data has been a central element of CitiStat since it was started 15 years ago by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, who still points to the agency as a signature accomplishment while talking to national audiences about his presidential potential.

Council members said last week that CitiStat staffers have asked them to leave the agency's meetings in City Hall, saying they aren't open to the public. "Every time I go up there, they escort me out of the room," Councilman Robert Curran said.

Councilman Edward Reisinger said CitiStat is being run like a "shadow government."

When asked about the private practice earlier this month, Grimes and administration officials said that some cases initiated before he took the City Hall job would carry over.

"Those cases began before his employment in this new position, and the mayor allowed him to close those out with the understanding that he would not be allowed to perform a full law practice while CitiStat director," Harris had said in an email.

"Mark's time commitment is minimal," Harris said, adding that the state contract work is done at nights and on weekends. "The over-arching majority of the time he was using his own time to do whatever he needed to do. It's not for us to know" what he does on his own time.

The state Human Resources Department awarded the three-year, $481,500 contract to Grimes Legal Group. Grimes' wife, Meisha McGuire Grimes, previously worked at the state agency, where she was an administrator from 1999 to 2005.

Grimes' firm represents indigent and disabled adults in guardianship hearings on behalf of the state in more than 350 cases in Baltimore County. A judge has appointed Grimes and his wife to represent disabled people in 33 of those cases, including 22 after Grimes started at CitiStat. The rest of the cases list McGuire Grimes or the firm as the attorney.

Grimes reported working 1,079 hours in the first year of the contract, which ran from September 2013 to August 2014, according to the state's annual monitoring report of Grimes Legal Group. During eight of those months, Grimes was CitiStat director.

Grimes reported working an average of 8.3 hours per case for 130 clients in the first year, the monitoring report states. His wife reported working 1,173 hours, or 8.5 hours per case for 138 clients. The state contract limits each attorney to no more than 150 clients per year.

The state paid the law firm $155,000 for that first year of the three-year contract, state payment records show. If the firm receives two additional one-year renewals allowed under the contract, the firm could earn a total of $960,480 over the five-year life of the contract.

Baltimore City ethics rules require department heads to identify business entities, including government agencies, that provide additional income to them and their spouses.

In the form Grimes filed for 2013, he listed his law firm as a source of income as well as the Community College of Baltimore County, where he is scheduled to teach an eight-hour course in May and June, and the "State of Maryland" for work he did grading bar exams. He also lists his wife's jobs as an attorney at the firm and as an instructor at the community college, where she earns $65,000 a year.

He does not list any income related to the state contract.

Harris said the mayor is satisfied that Grimes disclosed his legal practice.

"It seems highly irregular," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "There is clearly a conflict of commitment. Is he able to do both jobs capably at the same time?"

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