New Baltimore Sun owner and Sinclair Broadcast Group Executive Chairman David Smith has been quietly involved in a lawsuit accusing Baltimore City Public Schools of defrauding taxpayers, documents show.

Smith has had several discussions with the plaintiffs and their attorneys about the suit and is behind a corporation paying the plaintiff’s legal fees, according to documents obtained by The Baltimore Banner. All the while, Baltimore’s Fox45, Sinclair’s flagship TV station, has covered the case extensively without disclosing Smith’s role.

Jovani Patterson, now the sole plaintiff in the suit, has made numerous appearances on Fox45, discussing the lawsuit and other issues. Patterson is also the chairman of People for Elected Accountability and Civic Engagement, a political committee funded almost entirely by Smith that promotes ballot initiatives seeking to reshape how Baltimore is run and governed.

Patterson filed the lawsuit with his wife in January 2022 after several meetings with Smith and the law firm Thomas & Libowitz, according to a recent deposition of Patterson.

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“He’s a partner in it,” Patterson said in an interview Thursday of Smith’s ties to the case.

Lawyers for city schools are seeking to force Smith to answer questions about his involvement under oath and to provide any documents related to the matter, according to a copy of a subpoena sent to Smith that The Banner obtained in a public records request.

Patterson said during his deposition that he was not paying his own legal fees, and that an “entity” was. Pressed for details, Patterson’s attorney said Smith represented the “entity” in question, Election Law Integrity LLC, and that the company and Smith were clients of the firm in “this context.”

Neither a spokesperson for Smith or the Thomas & Libowitz attorney listed on the paperwork as the resident agent for Election Law Integrity returned messages seeking comment. Election Law Integrity does not have a website or any public-facing presence; Maryland business records show it was formed in April 2020.

In Patterson’s deposition, an attorney representing the school system asked him whether Smith was behind Election Law Integrity. Patterson’s attorney answered: “Yes, that’s correct.”

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The lawsuit claims the city school system has “wasted significant sums of money” through “illegal” acts by engaging in a “systemic and continuous history of misrepresenting its enrollment data” to the state. School systems are funded based on the number of students they serve, and in Maryland enrollment is determined by how many students are in schools on Sept. 30 each year.

The lawsuit has gained national attention, so much that prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump publicly joined the plaintiff’s team in the summer of 2022. Crump participated in an extensive sit-down interview with Fox45 in May 2023 about the case.

The complaint draws largely on Fox45′s Project Baltimore, a series critical of the school system that won an investigative reporting award for its coverage of “ghost students” — kids who were counted as being enrolled for state funding purposes when they were not. A report from the Maryland Office of the Inspector General for Education found that so-called ghost students accounted for about 0.3% of all city students counted for funding purposes over a five-year period, and that Montgomery County Public Schools had more wrongly counted kids.

At no point in Fox45′s coverage has the station disclosed that Sinclair’s top executive is funding it. Typically, news organizations will disclose potential conflicts of interest to build public trust, journalism ethics experts say. However, not all media executives see such disclosures as a requirement, said Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute.

“I’ve talked to many a media owner who does not agree with me, they see it as they have a right to free speech and a right to pursue other business interests and that journalism is lucky to have them as owners,” McBride said. “I think it is a general principle in journalism that the public values transparency. When the public finds out about conflicting interest and ulterior motives from the media owners they tend to be cynical as they consume the news.”

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Sinclair spokeswoman Jessica Bellucci wrote in an email to The Banner that Fox45 reporters and staff did not know of Smith’s involvement in the lawsuit, and that Smith had not been involved in any of the reporting or editorial decisions concerning the station’s coverage of it.

“For the interest of transparency, WBFF will ensure any coverage, past and future, of this lawsuit contains an appropriate disclosure,” Bellucci wrote. “Project Baltimore has been covering the Baltimore City Schools since the unit’s inception in 2017 and we are proud of their award-winning journalism. We stand by our journalists and their reporting.”

Patterson and Smith first became connected in either late 2020 or early 2021 after a Sinclair producer, Julian Baron, organized a meeting, according to Patterson’s Jan. 9 deposition. Patterson, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully in 2020 for Baltimore City Council president, told attorneys that he was “not sure” why Smith wanted to meet with him, but that he went to Sinclair headquarters in Hunt Valley anyway.

Patterson and Smith had several meetings in 2021, according to a transcript of Patterson’s deposition, with Smith suggesting Patterson and his wife, Shawnda, meet with Smith’s preferred attorneys at the Thomas & Libowitz firm. Patterson’s case is what’s known as a “taxpayer lawsuit,” meaning a person bringing the suit must be a taxpayer in the jurisdiction where the case is filed. Patterson lives in the city, Smith resides in Baltimore County.

In a brief interview outside his West Baltimore home on Thursday, Patterson said Smith encouraged the idea of the taxpayer suit: “We were always looking for different ways to do a lawsuit,” Patterson said.

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Shawnda Patterson was an original plaintiff, but withdrew after it was determined in December she did not own property in the city and didn’t have standing, according to court records.

Jovani Patterson and Smith met with the Thomas & Libowitz firm at least twice before filing the lawsuit, Patterson said during his deposition. The pair also met privately about the lawsuit without attorneys at least “once or twice,” Patterson told the attorneys. They have communicated “infrequently” about the case since it was filed.

In litigation, typically only the named parties in a case have decision making authority over what happens. Patterson said both in his deposition and to a Banner reporter that he believes the company Smith represents has decision-making authority, but declined to comment further, citing attorney-client privilege. Attorneys for the school system asked Patterson what he and Smith discussed in terms of the lawsuit, but Patterson’s attorney shut down that line of questioning, also citing attorney-client privilege.

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Third parties can pay legal fees to advance their interests so long as the client consents and they do not interfere with the attorney-client relationship, said Robert Rubinson, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Political groups regularly do as much, however they should and typically do publicly acknowledge their support, he added.

More troubling for media experts is Fox45′s extensive news coverage without any sort of disclosure.

“Transparency is vital in a functioning democracy,” said Rafael Lorente, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. “Journalism at its core is here to serve a functioning democracy.”

Last week, The Banner reported Smith’s comments about products of the city school system being destined to become welfare dependents.

“They’re always going to be on welfare. Always going to be on some structure that the government takes care of,” Smith said in his first meeting with Sun staff. “The only way you’re going to fix that is to fix the school system.”

Patterson said Smith is frustrated city schools aren’t providing the same level of education Smith received as a youth in the 1950s and ’60s.

“He’s not trying to make Black people look bad,” Patterson said. “He just believes in right and wrong. He just believes taxpayers should know where their money is going.”