Angelos, Curran should seek common ground

January 09, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

PETER ANGELOS has a $1 billion headache. Unless he alters his strategy, that headache is unlikely to disappear.

The good news for Mr. Angelos is that under a contract he signed with the state, he's entitled to 25 percent of the proceeds from Maryland's legal settlement with tobacco companies. That equates to more than $1 billion spread over the next 25 years.

The bad news is that if Mr. Angelos is paid in full, he would be reviled. He would be singled out from the pulpit as the personification of greed.

One billion dollars for a case that never went to court? One billion dollars for a case where his law firm's expenses were only $10 million?

That's a staggering return on his investment. It's as though he bet $10 million on a 100-to-1 long shot at Pimlico and won.

It's as though he had sold stock in his law firm and one day saw the value of his stock jump from $10 a share to $1,000 a share.

Mr. Angelos is the sole partner in his law firm. He already is a fabulously rich man from his numerous asbestos lawsuits. More money is flowing in from current lawsuits.

What's another billion dollars to a man of such wealth?

To Mr. Angelos, it's not about money. It's about principle and integrity. A deal is a deal, especially if it is a written contract, approved by the governor, the state treasurer and the state comptroller. They signed on the dotted line; now they should pay up.

That's a narrow, legalistic interpretation. Lawyers tend to look at life that way.

It sidesteps some pivotal questions: Is a $1 billion legal fee excessive? Does this fall into the category of an "unjust enrichment"? Doesn't Lawyer Angelos have a fiduciary duty to place his client's financial interest before his own?

State legal officers are suing Mr. Angelos to force him to seek payment from the tobacco companies for his legal fees before he duns the state. They also claim his fee -- equal to a $22,000 hourly rate -- would exceed the bounds of propriety for lawyers.

This has Mr. Angelos hopping mad. He feels his integrity is under attack. He's a proud man. He also hates to lose at anything.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran made a horrendous mistake in not anticipating what Mr. Angelos' contingency fee might be in a winning settlement against Big Tobacco. Why didn't he insert language setting a cap on legal fees?

Mr. Angelos took the state's case when no other law firm would bid on it. He's entitled to a just reward. He spent $10 million of his own money so the state didn't have to spend taxpayer dollars.

Yet what is "just" in this case? Would fair compensation be $20 million, $50 million, $100 million, $500 million or $1 billion? Is a lawyer entitled to all he or she can grab in contingency-fee cases?

That's where the issue of greed comes in. The General Assembly thinks a $1 billion fee is beyond what's acceptable. Last year, it set a limit of half that amount for Mr. Angelos -- though it may not be legally enforceable.

Some lawmakers feel even that sum is egregiously high. After all, the $1 billion Mr. Angelos seeks means less of the tobacco settlement money goes toward anti-smoking programs, cancer research and education. It makes him look piggish.

Unless Mr. Angelos seeks a way out of this dispute, it could become a hot issue in the General Assembly session that starts Wednesday. One high-ranking lawmaker wants to mandate a far more modest settlement because of what he calls the lawyer's "ludicrous" and "mind-boggling" demands.

Both sides should back off, cool off and seek common ground.

One key could be a written apology from Mr. Curran to Mr. Angelos for suing him. Until the lawyer feels his honor has been restored, he's unlikely to budge.

Perhaps the biggest step Mr. Angelos could take would be a public commitment to contribute the vast bulk of his fee to worthy civic and charitable causes. If he earmarked huge sums for Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland cancer programs and medical research, anti-Angelos sentiment might vanish.

And if the two men jointly sought compensation from the tobacco companies as the next step in this process, we might end this aura of bad feelings.

Mr. Angelos is on the griddle. If he stubbornly refuses to bend because his pride has been wounded, this dispute could get political and nasty. He cannot win this battle in the court of public opinion.

There's a time to stand up for your rights and a time to sit down and work things out. Smart lawyers know when to switch. And as we know, Peter Angelos is a very smart lawyer.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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