[Baltimore Sun] Sinclair chairman, Sun owner subpoenaed to testify in lawsuit against Baltimore schools

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Baltimore City schools seeks to scrutinize a media owner, a local TV station and a limited liability company in its defense against a sweeping civil lawsuit.

David Smith, the executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcasting Group who recently purchased The Baltimore Sun, has been subpoenaed to testify about his involvement in the taxpayer suit against Baltimore City and its school system. Sinclair Broadcasting Group and the limited liability company Smith’s associated with, Election Law Integrity, were named as interested parties in the case after plaintiff Jovani Patterson revealed that the entity was paying his legal bills.

Smith’s deposition was originally scheduled for Monday, according to court documents, but that’s likely to change, a city schools spokesperson said.

Patterson and his wife brought the civil lawsuit in January 2022, claiming the district defrauded taxpayers by failing to educate its students, inaccurately reporting student enrollment and not enforcing truancy rules. The Pattersons, who live in West Baltimore and whose child attended a city public school before transferring to a Baltimore County private school, filed a taxpayer suit in Baltimore Circuit Court.

This suit seeks to have the court impose oversight on the school system.

City attorneys tried to dismiss the case in 2022, arguing students’ education shouldn’t be regulated through litigation that seeks to hold the school system to an undefined standard. Patterson’s complaint is “ill-intentioned and frivolous,” city attorneys wrote, and “focuses on every catchy headline published by Fox 45 in the past several years that is critical of [city schools].”

In response to issues raised by the complaint, the school district said in court documents that it “had identified through its own protocols limited instances of misconduct undertaken by a limited number of employees.”

A judge allowed the case to move forward.

Thomas & Libowitz, the firm representing Patterson, also was called to testify about their involvement. City attorneys requested documents and records of communication that Smith, Election Law Integrity and the law firm have had with each other and Sinclair, which owns Fox 45. Patterson is a frequent guest on Fox 45 newscasts, which has covered the case. Patterson’s complaint includes Fox 45 articles about the school system to support his claims.

Margaret Argent, an attorney at Thomas & Libowitz who represents Patterson, objected to the request.

“The document request do not even make mention of the specific facts that will be issue at trial,” she wrote. BCPSS “is concerned about the fact that the plaintiff’s legal fees are being paid by a third party.”

Patterson and Smith, who lives in Baltimore County, have been publicly linked to several past political initiatives. But Smith’s involvement in the BCPSS lawsuit was not reported until Patterson was deposed in January, more than two years after the suit was filed. Patterson told school attorneys he had several meetings with Smith at Sinclair’s headquarters in Hunt Valley and Thomas & Libowitz’s Baltimore office before hiring the firm and filing the suit in 2022. Thomas & Libowitz has previously represented Smith and Sinclair.

“David Smith’s apparent and previously undisclosed hands-on involvement in the Patterson litigation leads to many questions, notably the authentic intent of the litigation,” Sherry Christian, a city schools spokesperson, said in a statement. “The best way for the public to know the truth is for Mr. Smith and Fox 45 to do what the TV station often seems to demand — be transparent.”

Smith did not respond to requests for comment through a spokesperson. Thomas & Libowitz did not respond to a request for comment.

David D. Smith, executive chairman of Hunt Valley-based television station owner Sinclair Broadcasting, purchased The Baltimore Sun in January. Handout photo

Attorneys for Smith and Election Law Integrity objected to the subpoenas, calling them overly burdensome and unrelated to enrollment, truancy and other issues of the case. A judge has yet to rule on the objections.

Taxpayer lawsuits are brought by citizens living in a jurisdiction challenging that the government misused their money. However, they can be considered as activist lawsuits aimed at publicizing a particular legal issue, said Cary Hansel, a Baltimore civil rights attorney.

“Activist lawsuits are not always focused on success in the courtroom but sometimes filed for the purpose of shining a light on an issue in the most noble cases, or harassing an opponent in the rare unfortunate case,” Hansel said.

In his January deposition, Patterson testified that he hadn’t paid any legal fees in the case. Rather, Election Law Integrity, in which Smith is a “representative,” has been paying Thomas & Libowitz’s legal fees, Argent said.

BCPSS subpoenaed Smith and Election Law Integrity nine days after Patterson’s deposition. An attorney at Thomas & Libowitz and the firm itself are listed as the resident agents of Election Law Integrity.

Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun

Jovani Patterson, then a Republican candidate for Baltimore City Council president, speaks at a 2020 news conference. Sun file photo

Patterson testified that he was introduced to Smith through Julian Baron, a producer at Sinclair, when Patterson was running as a Republican for Baltimore City Council president in 2020. The three men met at Sinclair’s headquarters on at least three occasions before Patterson said he decided in late 2021 to sue the city and its schools.

Smith joined Patterson and his wife for two meetings with attorneys before Patterson signed a retainer agreement with Thomas & Libowitz, Patterson said.

In 2022, Patterson and Smith joined forces on a successful ballot initiative that created term limits for Baltimore’s mayor, comptroller and City Council.

Patterson chairs the political action committee People for Elected Accountability and Civic Engagement, a group that petitioned to put the issue of term limits on city ballots. Smith provided money to finance the effort, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to ask voters to establish recall elections. State records show Smith gave $560,000 to the committee in 2022. Term limits were overwhelmingly approved by voters that same year.

Smith and Patterson are teaming up once again ahead of the 2024 election, this time to petition for a ballot question that would cut the size of the Baltimore City Council in half. Public records show Smith gave the committee $340,000 last year. The group already has submitted more than 25,000 signatures to the Board of Elections, more than what’s required to place the question a place on the November ballot.

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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