Federal judge rules that lawsuit by city employees should go to trial

2 public works managers sued bosses, claiming retaliation for criticism

October 07, 1999|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

After criticizing repairs to Baltimore's Quarantine Landfill in 1995, public works managers David Marc and Jeanne Robinson say their bosses punished them.

Marc says he lost use of his city-owned car, laptop computer and parking pass. Robinson says her supervisors cut her staff from 60 employees to three and slashed her bureau's budget from $17 million to $150,000, according to court records.

They also say they were denied opportunities for promotions and given menial tasks usuallyperformed by students or low-level engineers, the court records state.

U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, in an opinion issued Tuesday, sent their allegations to trial. Now Public Works Director George G. Balog and department supervisors Leonard H. Addison and Robert F. Guston will face a jury on two counts of retaliation against the two city workers in a $1.5 million lawsuit that has spanned four years.

Smalkin dismissed a defamation claim by the plaintiffs in which they alleged that Balog called them "unqualified critics" in a newspaper article and incompetent during staff meetings.

City officials maintained yesterday that Balog, Addison and Guston did nothing wrong and expressed dismay that the judge allowed the allegations to be decided at trial.

"We've denied the allegations, and the plaintiffs have the burden of proof," said City Solicitor Otho Thompson. "We simply have to go to trial."

Balog referred questions about the case to his spokesman, Kurt Kocher, who declined to comment because neither he nor Balog had read Smalkin's opinion.

Howard Schulman, an attorney for Marc and Robinson, said the decision is a strong boost for the case.

"David Marc and Jeanne Robinson feel very pleased," Schulman said. "Both contend that they were subjects of retaliation."

Robinson, the acting division chief of the Bureau of Solid Waste engineering division, and Marc, her assistant chief, alleged that the city improperly awarded a landfill repair contract to L. F. Mahoney Inc. of Baltimore.

Robinson and Marc alleged that Mahoney received the contract as part of a "contractor-friendly" policy in the city administration to reward companies that contributed to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's re-election campaign.

Records provided by the employees show that the department raised more than $500,000 in contributions from companies doing business with the city.

Balog has contended that Robinson and Marc are disgruntled employees and blamed them for the landfill woes.

Schmoke is in Cuba this week and could not be reached for comment.

The criticism of the landfill operation by Robinson and Marc came during a Board of Estimates meeting Dec. 13, 1995. Both were asked against their will by City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, the board's chairman, to testify about the landfill problem, Smalkin's opinion states.

Robinson and Marc submitted evidence to the court to show that several times before the board meeting, Balog, Addison and Guston tried to get the plaintiffs to agree that the contractor had performed the job adequately and to conform their views to the official public works position, Smalkin's opinion says.

After testifying before the estimates board, Robinson and Marc were contacted by an assistant U.S. attorney. Both had discussions with the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI about the landfill controversy and allegations of bid rigging for favored contractors by public works.

For their testimony at the estimates board and cooperation with federal authorities, Robinson and Marc allege that their supervisors retaliated against them.

In a previous ruling, Smalkin said city administrators, because they are government officials, were protected in their comments and actions. But a three-member panel from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled in November that through the city could not be held liable, the individual officials could.

A trial date has not been set, but attorneys in the case said it would probably take place in three to four months.

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