Angelos pursues his own agenda His bills in Annapolis put a 'dagger' into commerce, critics say

March 03, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith and Thomas W. Waldron | C. Fraser Smith and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

One of the state's most prominent businessmen, hailed for a singular contribution to sports and the quality of life in Maryland, finds himself accused in the General Assembly now of aiming a "dagger" at the heart of the business community.

Peter G. Angelos -- who made a fortune as a plaintiff's lawyer, paid a king's ransom for the Baltimore Orioles and thereby joined the mercantile elite -- looms suddenly as a villain among his entrepreneurial colleagues.

In a year when Gov. Parris N. Glendening strives to make the state look more hospitable to economic interests, Mr. Angelos is pushing legislation that could make Maryland businesses more vulnerable to expensive lawsuits.

"The Angelos Bill" would roll back a 1992 Court of Appeals ruling and improve a worker's chances for punitive damages -- cash awards over and above settlements made for pain, suffering and lost wages. Many other states have similar statutes, he says.

A man of power in political circles, Mr. Angelos can marshal the force of his team, deploying its pre-eminent star, Cal Ripken Jr., to give his legislative interests a mighty push.

"The outrageously high price he paid translates into dividends with his other projects," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., referring to the warm reception Mr. Angelos generally receives in Annapolis.

"It's very hard to differentiate Peter Angelos, the owner of a world-class baseball team, and Peter Angelos, entrepreneur," Mr. Miller said.

The punitive damages bill has triggered a fierce lobbying fight -- and it's just one of several Annapolis issues in which Mr. Angelos is a central figure this year.

'A brilliant man'

He's demanding lease terms equivalent to the lucrative ones given to Baltimore's new NFL team -- a possibly expensive add-on that has given opponents of the football stadium ammunition to use against the governor and his supporters.

He's pushing a bill to create four new judgeships in Baltimore -- the better to move his thousands of asbestos-related personal-injury cases through a clotted court system.

And he's attempting to persuade Maryland officials to select his firm to represent the state in what could be a landmark suit against tobacco manufacturers.

Mr. Angelos' friends say he brings more than wealth and the reflected glory of sports to his various enterprises.

"He's a brilliant man," says former Judge Edgar P. Silver, one of the lobbyists now working for him. "But he is also one of the most competitive people I've ever known. He's a real street fighter."

Critics call his punitive damages bill the grandfather of all special-interest legislation because it immediately would help workers with asbestosis, thousands of whom are represented by Mr. Angelos and his Baltimore firm.

In addition to its impact on the size of future awards, the bill would apply to all cases filed before July 1 of this year.

"I had an asbestos-related husband who passed, and I have been waiting for years to have the case tried. I am his widow, age 65, and must get my affairs in order," Dorothy Lister of Centreville told a state Senate committee last week.

Notwithstanding such cases, business sees the bill as an Angelos special.

"An egregious, self-serving proposition," said Champe C. McCulloch of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

'A red light'

Corporate interests say the mere introduction of the bill sent a cloud across the state's business horizon: If passed, they insist, it would chill the ardor of any firm thinking of moving to Maryland and dissuade those here from expanding.

"A red light flashing in the face of businesses looking into possible expansion or relocation in Maryland," said Jeffrey H. Gass, an official of Southern States Cooperative, a Richmond, Va.-based organization representing hundreds of companies.

"It sends a message that is powerfully destructive to our efforts at projecting a pro-business image," said James T. Brady, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development, testifying against the bill.

Mr. Angelos calls the complaints "specious."

"They say it's bad for business. I think it's worse when rogue corporations are guilty of anti-social conduct that leads to the deaths of hundreds," he said.

He had hoped to win support for the measure -- or at least neutrality -- from the Glendening administration.

But the governor sent Mr. Brady to testify against it.

Mr. Angelos' bargaining position with the administration had appeared strong, because he has a role in the dominant issue of the 1996 legislative session so far: the effort to win approval for $273 million in spending for two football stadiums, one for the Washington Redskins in Landover and one for Baltimore's new team next to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

A clause in Mr. Angelos' lease entitles him to parity with any deal struck between the state and a football team. To give the Orioles their equal standing, the state might have to pay millions, though the Maryland Stadium Authority disputes this.

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