Frank DeFilippo: Legal Defense Funds are Supposed to be Shielded, But Donors Often Claim Public Bragging Rights

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    Legal defense funds are private donations for public purchase. They are a form of autobiography that says what the principal(s) does and how much it’s worth.

    Legal defense funds are an invitation to participate, theoretically, in silence and anonymity and without the knowledge of the beneficiary(s) of the largesse. Yet the clamor and clang of those who donate will soon be public by their own words and deeds. The trick to donating is to be recognized.

    They are not to be confused with “Go Fund Me” pages, the internet’s version of a tin cup, which also can be used for good or ill intentions. So if ever the words “Nigerian prince” appear, hit the delete button lickety-split.

    Legal defense funds are commonplace these days among public officials, public interest groups and civil rights organizations such as the NAACP. Individuals as disparate as Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin have benefited from them.

    A legal defense fund was established for former Gov. Marvin Mandel during his two trials and lengthy appeals back in the 1970s-80s. There is no indication that legal defense funds were set up for Baltimore’s two convicted mayors, Sheila Dixon and Catherine Pugh, although one was reportedly considered by Dixon backers.

    Their origin is vague, but legal defense funds are thought to date back to the mid-19th century when minority groups began to amass funds to pay legal fees in their fights for rights.

    It comes as no shock, or even mild surprise, then, that Nick and Marilyn Mosby – he’s the Baltimore City Council president and she’s the state’s attorney – are entering the dialing-for-dollars club of public officials whose supporters are asking others to pay their legal bills rather than incur the debt themselves.

    And it comes as even less of a shock that the prominent Baltimore criminal defense attorney, Warren Brown – who regularly practices in Marilyn Mosby’s singular domain, the criminal courts – was openly and eagerly encouraging donations to the Mosbys’ legal defense fund, as reported by WBFF-TV. You see where this is going?

    White collar criminal proceedings are costly and can run well into the mid-six figures. The longer they drag out, the more expensive they become. And the lawyers want their money, often a big chunk up front.

    As a matter of record, the Mosbys have a combined annual income of $367,355 from their municipal jobs – Nick draws $128,583 from his job as council president, and Marilyn earns $238,772 as state’s attorney.

    What’s more, it should be remembered that in Marilyn’s name there is ownership of two houses in Florida purchased for more than $1 million, much of it in loans – one in Kissimmee for $545,000 with a $490,000 loan, and the other in Longboat Key, for $476,000 with a $428,000 loan.

    Nick and Marilyn also apparently own a home in Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood, assessment unknown, which was the subject of an IRS lien for $45,000 for three years of unpaid taxes – $23,000 in 2014, $19,000 in 2015, and $3,000 in 2016 – which Nick attributed to tapping a retirement fund early because of family difficulties.

    Nick reported recently that the IRS lien has been settled.

    Marilyn Mosby also has three letterhead companies – Mahogany Elite Consulting, Mahogany Elite Travel, and Mahogany Elite Enterprises LLC, a holding company. Marilyn says that none of the three is currently active.

    As a refresher, the Mosbys, jointly, are under investigation by a federal grand jury. Their legal entanglements have more loose ends than a platter of linguini – federal prosecutors, the city’s inspector general and the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission.

    And there’s the tetchy matter of $3,250 in campaign funds that Marilyn used to pay legal fees during the investigation by the inspector general into her travel at home and abroad and her absence from her office for 144 days in 2018 and 2019, according to the IG’s report. Marilyn was cleared of wrongdoing in her travels, but with a question mark about the rule’s ambiguity.

    The intertwining is further complicated by the recent nomination of Del. Erek Barron, of Prince George’s County, as the new U.S. attorney for Maryland. Barron served in the House of Delegates with Nick Mosby where he was a member prior to his election as City Council President last year. Barron has yet to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

    And here is where the slope gets slippery, especially for two of Baltimore’s top elected officials who already have a tangle of legal problems. Trouble seems to follow the Mosbys like tin cans tied to a dog’s tail, almost as if they’re asking for it.

    Establishing a legal defense fund can be seen as akin to hanging a “for sale” sign on City Hall. It’s an open door for criminal defense lawyers and lobbyists. Many of those who contribute want to be recognized for their donations and their implied intent — that recognition can come in many forms.

    Marilyn Mosby, as state’s attorney, has ultimate say over the disposition of cases that cross her desk. It’s her call, for example, over which are prosecuted, which are dropped and which are bargained out.

    And as city council president, it’s Nick Mosby’s decision on the path that legislation takes to its final destination — burial in his bottom desk drawer, bottled up in a hostile committee, or an easy dance to enactment.

    But, then, we, the people, are counseled that the legal defense fund will be presided over by an “uninterested legal trustee” who will shield the beneficiaries, Nick and Marilyn, from any knowledge of who gave what and how much.

    Not to worry. The donors will do summersaults to inform the public, and Nick and Marilyn, on their own that they have happily added their names to the list of generous but expectant donors. Or maybe even a discreet whisper will act as disclosure.

    It’s a convenient matter that state ethics laws require disclosure of allowable gifts with no limits whatever on amounts. But — prepare for another surprise — Baltimore’s ethics laws do not address legal defense funds.

    In an even stickier wicket, the Mosbys might have abused the first law of life and holes: When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

    By establishing a legal defense fund, they might eventually titillate more attraction by federal prosecutors and other legal voyeurs. They could have opened another avenue of attention and inquiry by the federal grand jury that is already investigating them with the help of the IRS, which could develop an interest in the defense fund and the deliberate turns that it might navigate along the breadcrumb trail.

    Nick and Marilyn Mosby have hired separate lawyers. Marilyn made a smart move when she chose not to represent herself.

    Marilyn’s attorney, A. Scott Bolden, submitted a lengthy response to a list of questions which was published in The Baltimore Sun under the headline: “Marilyn Mosby, attorney address criminal tax investigation, present theory on origins and scope of federal case.”

    You guessed it. The feds have no case. It’s a conspiracy and a vendetta.

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    REFRESHER: As a matter of interest for those who brood over such things, if a vacancy occurs in the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office, a successor is appointed by the Circuit Court judges of Baltimore City. When that occurred in the 1970s, Chief Judge Meyer Cardin of the Supreme Bench (reformed and renamed the Circuit Court) used his authority to force the appointment of his son, Howard Cardin, brother of U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D), as state’s attorney. Howard Cardin was defeated in the next election.

    City Council members fill their president’s vacancy, which was the stepping-stone of Brandon Scott to his current position as mayor.

    Frank A. DeFilippo
    Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.