Balog's comeuppance

Verdict: Federal civil jury punishes former public works director for vindictiveness.

May 24, 2000

GEORGE G. BALOG is not the first or last bureaucrat whose bullying was tolerated because he produced results. But his 12-year reign of vindictiveness over Baltimore's public works department makes his punishment by a federal jury well-justified.

Yet the finding against Mr. Balog and a top aide should be read in the narrow context of the case. They indeed "maliciously, wantonly and oppressively" retaliated against underlings who complained about contract irregularities. But a variety of allegations of corruption -- which the U.S. attorney and FBI are investigating -- remain unproven and may never result in prosecution.

Mr. Balog's autocratic ways were well known to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. But they were tolerated because the public works director was seen as a doer.

Mr. Balog could deliver in various ways, including persuading contractors to contribute heavily to political campaigns. As a result, his bureaucratic empire grew and grew. In the end, Mr. Balog became a veritable city manager.

As Mr. Balog's power expanded, so did his conceit and unwillingness to brook criticism. He formed his own security force and built an opulent executive suite. Underlings were told not to refer to him by name but as "the director."

Mr. Balog doesn't have a monopoly on these kinds of delusions. But that's not why he was on trial. The case against him grew out of whistle-blowing employees' complaints that their rights to free speech had been violated when they were penalized for speaking out to city and federal officials.

The case was not simple: U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin initially threw out the case, ruling Mr. Balog and his aides were protected by government immunity. That decision was overturned.

Mr. Balog and his co-defendant, Leonard H. Addison, will appeal the jury's $175,000 damage verdict. That is their right. But the trial has cleared the air. Formerly intimidated Balog aides have testified about browbeating and hectoring that were allowed to go on far too long.

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