Workers' suits allege race bias at cable firm

February 09, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

A 1993 incident in which more than 20 black employees of Baltimore's cable television system were herded into a room for interrogation by white investigators in the presence of armed guards is at the center of a series of lawsuits filed yesterday against Tele-Communications Inc., the nation's largest cable operator.

The incident took place on the same day the black president of United Artists Cable of Baltimore was at TCI's office in Bethesda being fired by his white supervisor.

These two incidents, coupled with other recent dismissals or demotions of blacks at other TCI properties, led to the filing yesterday of three lawsuits against the giant cable television operator seeking damages estimated at more than $1 billion.

One of the lawsuits, a class action filed in federal court in Washington, seeks to block the proposed merger of Bell Atlantic Corp. and TCI. The others, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court, seek to revoke United's city cable TV franchise.

The class action filed by Baltimore attorney Steven L. Snyder alleges that TCI and its subsidiaries have a policy of biased employment and hiring based on "an invidious and racially discriminatory animus directed at black people." The suit seeks damages on behalf of all blacks who have been applicants or employees at TCI.

TCI's lawyer denied the charges of racism raised in the various suits brought by Mr. Snyder. "We welcome his lawsuit, and we look forward to defending it," said Vinnie Cohen of the Washington firm of Hogan & Hartson.

The lawsuits center on a series of incidents involving TCI cable properties and their black employees, including the firing of Euan F. D. Fannell as president of the Baltimore unit and the departures of two black executives from TCI's regional headquarters and its District of Columbia affiliate.

The most dramatic incident described in the suits took place Oct. 26, 1993, at United Cable's offices at 2525 Kirk Ave. in Baltimore. Many of the details of what happened are in dispute, but the actions of TCI security personnel that day later prompted a delegation of three or four company executives to fly to town to apologize to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Mr. Schmoke said last night that he was "disappointed" to learn about the incident. "I find it hard to believe that employees were treated in this fashion," the mayor said. "I hope that steps are taken to make certain that there is not a repeat of that type of incident in that company or any other company."

The incident prompted a suit in which 27 present and former employees of United Artists, all of them black technical and office workers, alleged that they were "rounded up and subjected to verbal and physical harassment and subjected to humiliating treatment at gunpoint."

Ten of the plaintiffs gathered yesterday at their lawyers' offices to describe the incident. They said that when they arrived at work around 8 a.m. that day, they were met by a contingent of security guards and were told to report to a meeting with a white supervisor, Roy Harbert. At the meeting, they said, Mr. Harbert read off 20 names of people who were told to report to the training room in connection with an investigation. Seven others were later added to the list, but some of those were confined to their offices, the plaintiffs said.

According to the plaintiffs who were sent to the training room, they were frisked by the security guards and told they could not contact a lawyer until after they were questioned by corporate security personnel about the theft of converter boxes and other possible misconduct. They said that the telephones were disconnected and that they were not allowed out of the room to use a restroom unless accompanied by an armed security guard.

Terry Campbell, 30, said that at one point he got up to leave but was blocked by a guard. "He put his hand on his gun. It was already unsnapped. Right or wrong, it made me stop," said Mr. Bradley.

Other plaintiffs confirmed Mr. Campbell's account and said the guards' actions deterred them from trying to leave. Most of the employees said they were detained until about 3:30 p.m., and some said they were never interrogated. Fourteen were allowed to return to work and the remaining 13 suspended or discharged, the suit said. Employees who remain at the company said nobody from TCI ever apologized for their treatment, which they described as humiliating.

Mr. Cohen, TCI's lawyer, said the company is investigating the incident to determine whether it was appropriately handled by its own investigators. He said race was not a factor in the employees' treatment, adding that United Cable's work force of more than 200 employees is 85 percent to 90 percent black.

The lawyer, who is also black, said the employees who were told to report to the room were chosen after a "sub rosa" investigation of possible drug use and theft of cable services. He denied employees' contentions that the guards were all armed, saying two guards at the scene carried guns.

The lawyer dismissed Mr. Snyder's attempt to bring the TCI-Bell Atlantic merger into the lawsuit as "ridiculous."

Outside legal authorities agreed that it was a questionable tactic and theorized that the issue was raised to pressure TCI to agree to a settlement.

"I guess I'd describe it as ingenious but implausible," said Mark A. Sargent, professor of law at the University of Maryland. "I wouldn't see how that could be regarded as an appropriate remedy for racial discrimination."

A Bell Atlantic spokesman said the suit would have no effect on its plans to acquire TCI.

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