Landlord duns lawyers for back rent NationsBank pressing for $391,340.15 from Weinberg & Green

Grandstanding alleged

Tenant says arrearage is meant to spur action on building's 'warts'

June 11, 1996|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

The law firm of Weinberg & Green LLC has fallen into a nasty rent dispute with its landlord, NationsBank, which turned up the heat by threatening to go after personal assets of more than 100 current and former Weinberg partners if the firm does not pay almost $400,000 in back rent.

In a letter to Weinberg Chairman Charles O. Monk II, attorney K. Donald Proctor of the Miles & Stockbridge law firm said Weinberg "has left the landlord with no alternative other than to begin to pursue its legal remedies in order to resolve the existing defaults."

But the move met with near-unanimous skepticism from former Weinberg partners. Several accused the bank of grandstanding, and said the bank has breached a promise in the lease to keep the 16-year-old structure a "first-class" office center.

"The landlord has completely trashed the building," one ex-partner said. "It's not the same building as when the lease was signed [in 1978]. Weinberg has nice offices. You don't want clients to walk through a swamp to get to a castle. We hired David Rockefeller's interior designer to design that space. We spent a lot of money."

Weinberg has reduced its rent payments by $47,651.80 in the first five months of this year, and had not paid its June rent of $121,903.05 by Friday, the June 7 letter from Proctor said. The total due is $391,340.15.

The letter contends that Weinberg has failed to respond to NationsBank's proposals to cut the amount of space Weinberg occupies in the NationsBank Center complex at 100 S. Charles St., and that Weinberg has blamed the rent backlog on slow business conditions.

"Neither I nor the landlord wish to take action against Weinberg and Green which would jeopardize the future of the firm," Proctor wrote. "However, nearly 90 days have passed since your expression of that concern."

Weinberg has had major business problems. The firm has been through two major malpractice cases in the past year (it won one, lost and then settled the other), and waves of partner defection and layoffs have shrunk its legal staff by about 40 percent since the late 1980s.

But Weinberg denies that it's in immediate financial straits, and several former partners accused the bank of trying to frighten the firm into settling the dispute by disseminating the letter so widely that it was certain to become public.

"You have to ask, Miles & Stockbridge being bright lawyers, what is the purpose of the letter?" said ex-partner James Astrachan, now a partner in another downtown firm. He called it "an effort to turn up the heat on Weinberg & Green by having 100 former partners call Charlie Monk."

Proctor could not be reached yesterday. He did not return any of five phone calls.

Weinberg says it withheld part of its rent in a dispute over conditions, including the planned expansion of an Immigration and Naturalization Service office in the building. That explanation drew a hot response from INS officials.

"We have loitering of the INS visitors and vagrants in the lobby," said Victoria Smouse Berghel, a Weinberg attorney who is spearheading negotiations with NationsBank. "There are more warts on the building than just the INS. Do you walk through lakes in front of the USF&G building?"

Berghel said the firm grew more concerned recently when it obtained information that the INS was planning to put a $l detention facility for immigration offenders in the 17-story building.

But that isn't true, said INS District Director Benedict J. Ferro. The INS expansion will simply add more office space for agents now based in other quarters. INS detainees in the Baltimore district are held in local jails in Baltimore and in Howard and Wicomico counties.

Ferro angrily disputed some lawyers' claims that the INS' clients create problems in the building.

"They may not show up in Brooks Brothers suits, it's true, but we've never had a reason to question the appearance of people who come to our office," Ferro said.

"I can't tell the difference between people who get off the elevator at the 12th floor and anywhere else. In terms of appearance, there's no better group than American citizens being naturalized. I'd be amazed if anyone looked at that picture and saw anything but true Americans."

The dispute over the INS has been simmering since NationsBank Center and several other corporate buildings downtown began accepting government tenants at the depths of the recession.

However, the dispute over the INS presence came to a head in part because of Weinberg's economic struggles. Berghel acknowledged that the firm wants to force NationsBank to accommodate the firm's downsizing, as she said other landlords have allowed shrinking law firms like Semmes Bowen & Semmes to get out of part of their leases.

"We expanded to four floors, and we can use three, 2 1/2 , maybe two floors," she said.

"Let me put it this way: it got their attention, and we think it's equitable because they haven't delivered."

Pub Date: 6/11/96

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