Schmoke testifies for Balog defense

Former mayor called in federal trial over reprisal accusations

May 20, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Describing himself to jurors as a "recovering politician," former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke returned briefly to public life yesterday as a defense witness in the federal civil case involving his former public works chief.

The man who six months ago was the leader of America's 16th-largest city tended by police bodyguards and a doting staff strolled two blocks from his law office to the U.S. District Courthouse alone.

A graying Schmoke, 50, greeted surprised passersby on West Lombard Street with his trademark smile and seemed visibly more relaxed than he was before he stepped down as mayor in December after 12 years.

"I'd prefer to come back into the courtroom not as a witness," said Schmoke, now a lawyer and once Baltimore's state's attorney.

He was in court yesterday as a witness in the trial of former Public Works Director George G. Balog, Schmoke's only Cabinet appointment to stay through his three terms. Balog is accused of retaliating against two underlings who complained publicly over the department's supervision of a 1995 landfill repair contract.

The two Bureau of Solid Waste engineers, Jeanne Robinson and David Marc, seek $1.5 million in damages from the city. The two supervisors allege that Balog and his top aides retaliated, harassed and intimidated them for complaining about the landfill repairs, allegations they say cost them department promotions and thousands of dollars in overtime.

Looking fit and dapper in a light brown suit that fit him snugly, Schmoke, a one-time City College quarterback, took the witness stand at 10:15 a.m. to face 55 minutes of questioning before the eight-member jury.

"Kurt Schmoke. S-C-H-M-O-K-E," he said, spelling his name for the record after being sworn in.

Schmoke matter-of-factly recalled his role in the contract flap, noting that a former public works supervisor and longtime friend, Kenneth J. Strong, first brought the issue to his attention in 1995.

Strong, then the city's chief of solid waste, raised concerns over repairs to the Quarantine Landfill near Hawkins Point after cracks developed in the asphalt surface designed to trap contaminated runoff.

Schmoke testified that he was 15 when he got to know Strong and that the two had been members of the Lancers Boys Club together. Strong also worked for him in the state's attorney's office, Schmoke said.

"This is a guy I knew for a long time," he said. "If he was troubled, I was troubled."

When Strong raised questions about the handling of Contract 145, Schmoke took the matter to Balog for a response. City lawyers reviewed the matter but found no problems with the administration of the contract, Schmoke said.

Not convinced that his questions had been adequately addressed, Strong told Schmoke he intended to contact federal investigators about the contract, Schmoke said.

"I said `Ken, do what you have to do,'" Schmoke recalled.

Since then, the FBI has conducted a four-year criminal investigation of the Department of Public Works, the city's largest. Federal prosecutors are continuing a grand jury investigation of the department.

Strong, Robinson and Marc have alleged that Balog steered contracts to Schmoke campaign contributors - allegations Balog has denied. Companies involved in the landfill repairs contributed $10,200 to Schmoke's 1995 campaign, records showed.

Robinson and Marc were interviewed by the FBI and also testified publicly before the city's spending board, the Board of Estimates, about the landfill contract. The two alleged that the landfill repair contractor, L.F.Mahoney Inc., failed to complete the repairs properly but was paid.

An audit of the contract by City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt found that the department paid $200,000 more than the estimate. Auditors also found that Balog paid $211,300 in city funds to a waste hauler on the contract in increments of less than $5,000, avoiding Board of Estimates scrutiny.

Schmoke defended Balog yesterday, telling jurors he was satisfied with his performance.

"Nobody every substantiated the claims that Ken was making," Schmoke said. "That was my view in 1995, and that is my view today."

Schmoke acknowledged being "hot" over Strong's appearance at a December 1996 Board of Estimates meeting, where Strong made public his concerns about the landfill contract. Schmoke called the meeting "political theater."

"That just wasn't the way we did business," Schmoke said of the public airing. "It wasn't an attempt to resolve the issue. The kindest word I can give you was that it was a `sandbag.'"

Under questioning by Balog's attorney, Benjamin W. Hahn, Schmoke said federal inquiries into city contracts were not unusual. But under cross-examination by Howard J. Schulman, who is representing Robinson and Marc, Schmoke acknowledged that the subpoenas issued in the landfill inquiry were not routine.

As the questioning continued, Schmoke appeared increasingly annoyed. On several occasions, he said in response that he couldn't remember, apologizing to jurors as a "recovering politician."

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