Amid allegations, he's turbulent Boss of Baltimore streets Public Works' Balog faces lawsuits, FBI and keeps on going

July 21, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Board of Estimates meeting adjourns, and City Councilman Robert Curran turns to a visitor standing near the dais. "Are you waiting to see 'The Boss?' " Curran asks.

"The Boss" is Baltimore Public Works Director George G. Balog. The son of an Essex restaurant owner, the 57-year-old engineer and lawyer has risen to become, some would argue, the most powerful man in Baltimore.

He commands an army of 6,000 employees and controls an annual budget of $500 million, including $160 million in coveted city contracts. In addition, he supervises his own police force and is chauffeured to meetings in a black Lincoln Town Car by a bodyguard and traveling aide named Rocky.

Stacked against Baltimore's business community, Balog's operating budget ranks in size slightly below Legg Mason Inc. and T. Rowe Price.

But the tenure of the city's longest-serving department director has been wracked by long-standing corruption allegations. For the past two years, the FBI has investigated Balog over contract-rigging allegations that he denies.

His "Boss" moniker refers to his iron-fisted management of 10 city functions, ranging from issuing parking tickets to providing water. His undisputed rule is visible from the flowers lining Inner Harbor sidewalks to the lowest water bills on the East Coast.

"If I was the CEO of a company, I would want George Balog to be my department head," said Curran, Balog's most loyal council supporter. "He's a hands-on manager who wants things done right, who won't take no for an answer and wants it done yesterday."

Lingering questions

Praise for Balog's efficiency is rivaled by nagging questions over his handling of department contracts.

According to federal and state civil rights lawsuits filed against Balog by two department administrators, the Boss raised $500,000 in campaign contributions for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in 1995 -- 25 percent of the mayor's funds -- from contractors, consultants and developers bidding on city public works contracts. The federal lawsuit has been dismissed and is on appeal; the state suit is pending.

The plaintiffs, Jeanne Robinson and David Marc, paint Balog as a tyrannical bully who harassed them out of the department's inner circle after they criticized a landfill repair in which they say a company that donated heavily to the Schmoke campaign failed to complete the job.

During a discussion about a colleague dismissed during the controversy, Robinson said, Balog screamed at her. "He said the City Charter gave him the authority to do 'any goddamn thing' he wanted 'short of murder' and that if I didn't like it, I was in the 'wrong goddamn place,' " Robinson said.

Balog denies the account. He acknowledges his reputation for occasionally yelling to motivate employees, but says he never screamed at Robinson. He and city attorneys call Robinson and Marc, both engineering supervisors in the department's solid waste division, disgruntled employees seeking a combined $1.5 million in damages from the city.

Although contractors hoping to do business with the city contributed to the mayor's campaign, Schmoke and Balog deny that contractors were pressured for contributions.

"There was certainly no relationship between contributions and contracts that I'm aware of," said Larry Gibson, Schmoke's 1995 campaign manager.

Since becoming Schmoke's first appointment in 1988, Balog has faced controversy. Shortly after becoming director he was criticized for asking contractors bidding on city projects to contribute to a Christmas party for the mayor. Four years later, a drunken-driving conviction thrust him into the news.

Model of efficiency

Balog answers critics by pointing to the department's reputation as one of the most efficient public works operations in the nation.

The American Public Works Association named Balog one of the Top 10 Public Works Leaders in the country in 1992. Baltimore remains one of the few U.S. cities with twice-weekly trash collection. Balog, who earns $113,000 per year, has cut his department's budget $45 million in the past 10 years. At one point, three of four department bureau chiefs were minorities or women.

Balog's ultimate management feat occurred in November, when a sinkhole swallowed a downtown intersection, causing it to erupt in a ball of flame. Balog donned his coveralls and directed a year's worth of repairs in 20 days.

"I'm the public works director. If something happens, I'm there," said Balog, who stands 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds. "When the public sees me there, they know the problem is going to be solved."

Supporters credit Balog's success to his tireless work ethic. His grandfather instilled the sunrise-to-sunset standard, which keeps Balog in the office until late at night, on the family's Pennsylvania dairy farm, where Balog lived until he was 6. The family moved to Essex, where his father worked night and day operating a restaurant and lounge.

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