Peter G. Angelos: Most successful lawyer in Maryland. Democratic mega-donor. Orioles owner. Developer. Philanthropist. Multi-multi-multimillionaire.
Victim, he says, of double-dealing and political cowardice on the part of Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who sued him last week in a dispute over his fee for handling Maryland's tobacco lawsuit. Of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who wouldn't intervene to stop Curran. And of other politicians, scheming lawyers from other states and of the tobacco industry, which hates him. For good reason, he notes.
"You know what's wrong? You know what's wrong?" he says. "A poor guy made some money, and they can't stand that. I'm the same guy from East Baltimore I was 25 years ago."
He says this in his elegant office atop the downtown tower he bought and renovated a few years ago. East Baltimore, where his parents ran a tavern, stretches into the haze 22 floors below and a couple of miles away.
He is interrupted by a phone call from a friend, whom he urges to join him this night at a Democratic National Committee dinner at the Washington Hilton. "This presidential thing," Angelos calls it.
"We'll be sitting right beside the big man," he assures the caller. When he hangs up, he confirms that, yes, the big man is President Clinton.
There are numerous ironies in the Angelos fee dispute: that a lawyer who made his fortune suing others is so furious to be sued himself; that the No. 1 financial backer of Maryland Democrats finds himself facing his beneficiaries in court; that a man with a lifestyle quite modest compared to his fortune is so insistent on collecting more money; that a generous giver to public causes wants to collect a fee that would come in part from the very causes he has supported, such as medical research.
But the ultimate irony may be that this son of Greek immigrants who, at 70, is perhaps the most powerful man in the state should feel so frustrated, so wronged, so mistreated, so misunderstood. The chorus of sniping at what many baseball fans consider his heavy-handed management of the Orioles seems to have set the stage for his slow burn.
The state's lawsuit is the coup de grace.
"You're saying that if I collect my fee I'm taking money away from cancer research at Hopkins?" he booms. He turns to his own lawyer, Bill Gately. "These people are unbelieveable! Without our firm, there would have been no recovery!"
That is certainly an overstatement, since the national tobacco settlement was negotiated by other people from other states and Maryland's share was allocated by population.
And Angelos' stand is not exactly calculated to win popularity.
"It's a joke giving him a billion dollars," says Fred Madero, 60, of Essex, a labor union official with a towing business in East Baltimore.
"It's greed. It's excessive."
Support for Angelos
But plenty of people see Angelos' side: He signed a contract to handle the state's lawsuit for 25 percent of any money recovered, he says, so he should get the 25 percent. Perhaps the most notable of his supporters is the comptroller of Maryland, William Donald Schaefer.
Because Schaefer oversees state revenue collection, he might be expected to side with Curran, who wants Angelos to get his fee from the tobacco industry instead of from the state's settlement. Not so.
Though it could cost the state more than $1 billion -- 25 percent of the state's $4.7 billion settlement -- Schaefer says Angelos should be paid according to his original deal.
"The state entered into a contract with him. He won it by competitive bid. He put up all the costs," says Schaefer. "They should honor the contract."
As straightforward as that sounds, neither the law nor the logic of the fee dispute is quite so simple. Consider the record outside Maryland.
More than 40 states sued the tobacco industry, and nearly every one hired a private lawyer on a contingency-fee contract to handle its lawsuit, as Maryland did. But to date, not a single lawyer has collected a penny from any state's settlement money, as Angelos seeks to do.
That's because negotiators of the tobacco settlement, fearing that attacks on hefty legal fees could torpedo the deal, set up a separate mechanism to pay attorneys. Cigarette makers agreed to pay both lawyers' expenses and fees directly, so that no one could complain that wealthy attorneys were taking money away from anti-smoking programs, medical research and other public purposes.
So far, lawyers for at least 23 states have collected fees from the tobacco industry, either by negoti- ating directly with industry representatives or by going through an arbitration process.
When Maryland announced it would join the national settlement 13 months ago, Angelos said he would do likewise, sparing the state's money. "Our goal is to make sure the tobacco industry pays our fee," he said.
Change of heart