Builder files defamation suit over school pact

Ancel seeks $45 million from top officials

April 23, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Cranberry Station Elementary School's original contractor filed a defamation suit yesterday against top Carroll County school officials, claiming they falsely accused him of being unable to finish the project on time or within budget.

James W. Ancel Inc. of Towson took issue with statements made at a public meeting last month by Superintendent William H. Hyde, Assistant Superintendent Vernon F. Smith Jr. and school board attorney Louis J. Kozlakowski, who argued that Ancel's contract was terminated because of scheduling concerns and disputes over rock removal and steel work.

Those statements were false, according to the lawsuit filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court. School officials terminated the contract because they did not receive an apology from Ancel after a disagreement over rock removal, according to the suit.

Ancel claims in the suit that during a news conference and school board meeting March 10, Hyde, Smith and Kozlakowski, "proceeded to manufacture allegations never before asserted that blamed the parties' breakup on Ancel's conduct and performance, rather than on Defendants' crusade for an apology."

Ancel is seeking more than $45 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Ancel declined to comment on his suit. His attorney, William H. Huddles, said, "The lawsuit speaks for itself."

School officials stood by the statements made March 10.

"Very simply, we contend that they were not defamatory," Smith said yesterday.

Kozlakowski's attorney, Matthew A. Ranck, declined to comment.

The defamation suit was filed yesterday as an addition to Ancel's lawsuit against the Carroll school system, which claims school officials doctored videotapes of school board meetings and withheld from Ancel other information regarding the Cranberry Station project.

Over budget

Cranberry Station, an elementary school under construction in Westminster, is more than $1.7 million over budget and a year behind schedule. It is expected to open in August.

Ancel left the project in March 1998. Since then, the school system has scrambled to pull the project back together, paying higher-than-expected prices for subcontracting work because of market conditions and tight deadlines.

To make up for the overruns, school officials have reduced the quality of carpet in the media center, eliminated a play area and used thinner roofing material. School officials also pulled more than $900,000 from other construction projects to pay for Cranberry Station.

Audit considered

School officials are debating whether to conduct a performance audit of the project to answer questions surrounding it.

Noting more than 100 letters, e-mails, internal memos and other documents outlining the history of the troubled building project, the lawsuit disputes school officials' version of the breakup with Ancel.

Ancel argues that he was on schedule and received compliments on his job performance from the school administration. The project's delays were caused by the county's failure to obtain proper permits, he says in the lawsuit.

In February 1998, a month before his contract was terminated, Ancel's updated schedule shows he would finish the project in February 1999, six months ahead of the school's current completion date, according to the lawsuit.

Other exhibits included with the suit seek to show that Ancel was approved by the school system to bid on construction projects a month before his termination.

Documents also seek to show that school officials canceled a construction meeting because they had not received an apology and denied Ancel's request to meet with school officials to discuss their disagreements.

"Clearly, Carroll County was making no reasonable effort to resolve this issue, but was rather only interested in blustering Ancel into an apology," the suit reads.

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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