Public works whistle-blowers' retaliation trial to begin today

May 15, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

A 4-year-old civil suit involving three former Baltimore public works officials accused of retaliating against whistle-blowing underlings is scheduled to begin today in U.S. District Court.

David Marc and Jeanne Robinson, two Department of Public Works employees, are seeking $750,000 each in damages from the city, claiming that their free speech rights were violated by supervisors.

Their suit, filed in 1996, alleges that their bosses denied them promotions and overtime pay because they reported landfill repair problems to the city Board of Estimates and federal investigators. The case was returned to U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin after an appeal of a dismissal.

Robinson worked as acting solid waste division chief and Marc as an engineer on her staff when they accused former Public Works Director George G. Balog and two top aides, Leonard H. Addison and Robert F. Guston, of illegally favoring one contractor in the bidding process in the Quarantine Landfill repair near the Anne Arundel County border. The repair work was shoddy, resulting in a shutdown of the site, they alleged.

L. F. Mahoney Inc. of Baltimore received the city contract, the employees said, as part of a "contractor-friendly" policy for companies that contributed to former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's 1995 re-election campaign. Mahoney, Schmoke and Balog denied the allegations.

A review by city auditors found that the city paid at least $762,675 for landfill repairs initially approved at $563,435. Auditors also said repairs were not adequately monitored "to ensure that the contractors complied with applicable contract specifications."

Balog has blamed Robinson and Marc for the dump's problems, saying they failed to follow orders to fill a pond designed to catch material leaching from the landfill.

The three former public works leaders recently left the department, while Marc and Robinson remain employees, a fact that attorneys hired by the city intend to highlight as a defense.

"One has to wonder why, if their speech was so damaging to the defendants and the defendants had such a strong desire to get rid of them, the alleged victims are still employed in professional positions by the city of Baltimore," said attorney Benjamin W. Hahn, who is representing Balog.

Howard J. Schulman, an attorney for Robinson and Marc, declined to comment.

Taxpayers are spending up to $550,000 to defend the former department leaders.

The landfill troubles led to a continuing federal grand jury investigation of past department operations. Robinson and Marc were interviewed by federal investigators, they said.

In 1998, a panel of three federal appeals court judges in Richmond, Va., ruled that the three administrators must face trial over allegations that they violated Marc and Robinson's civil rights. That ruling overturned Smalkin's determination that the men were protected by immunity in their comments and actions because they were government officials.

The panel also ruled that the former city department leaders could be held liable if they are found to have violated the free speech rights of the employees.

Jury selection is expected to begin today in the trial, which is scheduled to last up to two weeks.

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