Retaliation trial paints bizarre picture

Hostile Public Works environment detailed

May 24, 2000|By Gerard Shields and Gail Gibson | Gerard Shields and Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A manager with a sword circling an employee. Aromatic candles burning in a supervisor's darkened office. Documents being fed into a shredder. Spying bodyguards. And a key witness missing.

This was the picture of the Baltimore Department of Public Works painted by witnesses in the weeklong federal civil case against the agency's former director, George G. Balog, and his top aides.

The testimony and a half-dozen boxes of documents accumulated during the four years leading up to the trial provided jurors with a unique glimpse into the department during the waning years of former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration.

Public Works engineers Jeanne Robinson and David Marc filed a suit in 1996 alleging that Balog and Bureau of Solid Waste Director Leonard H. Addison had violated their free speech rights by retaliating against them for exposing faulty work.

The jury awarded the two workers $178,000 Monday in combined damages, ending an ordeal that colleagues said yesterday left the workers stepping through a daily minefield trying to do their jobs while avoiding the wrath of bosses.

"They paid a heavy and bizarre price for telling the truth," Kenneth J. Strong, the city's former solid waste director, said of his two former colleagues. "The pressure on them to recant was enormous and they stood their ground. I respect the hell out of that."

The case began five years ago when the engineers were called to the city Board of Estimates to testify about alleged faulty repairs at the city's Quarantine Road Landfill near Hawkins Point. The employees said Balog and top aides denied them promotions, overtime and use of city equipment, such as computers and cars, as a result of their public appearance.

In laying out their claims to the jury, Robinson and Marc described an odd picture of life inside the city's largest department.

At the trial, defense attorneys said Balog and Strong, Balog's chief nemesis, struggled for control of the department, moving loyal workers into place like chess pieces. In the end, Kurt Kocher, a member of Balog's inner circle delivered the crippling blow, testifying to what he describe as his former boss' rage and vindictiveness.

Marc recalled being questioned by Addison, who walked around the room holding a sword he kept on display in his office. The office was always kept darkened, with aromatic candles burning, Marc testified.

Robinson testified that Balog ordered her to take lunch at noon and then had her followed by Anthony "Rocky" DeMarco, a trusted aide, chauffeur and bodyguard. She recalled being questioned by Addison, who once sat in his office smiling at her as he slowly shredded department documents.

Kocher, Balog's communications director, defended yesterday his crucial testimony to jurors that his former boss regularly spewed "obsessive," profanity-laced criticisms of Robinson and Marc.

Kocher played down the sinister nature of the testimony.

Balog's aide, DeMarco, is an easygoing father of two who serves as a Scout leader, Kocher said. And several department managers, not just Addison, use aromatic candles to mask the musty smell of the Abel Wolman Municipal Building, which houses the Public Works Department, he said.

In striking down last-minute motions to dismiss the case Monday, U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin commented on the impact the agency's work environment had on the employees.

"There is obviously emotional distress," Smalkin said to the attorneys hired by the city, outside the presence of the jury. "You saw them practically crying on the witness stand. Whether that was real or not is for the jury to decide."

Jurors never heard from the potentially most explosive witness, Dorinda Hughes, who was an aide to the upper echelon of the department for six months and told attorneys and FBI investigators of her suspicions of widespread corruption in the department.

A private investigator working for the attorney representing Robinson and Marc testified that he tried for weeks to find Hughes.

Balog's attorneys called her deposition, which was not introduced at trial, "highly suspect."

Smalkin, who threw out the case before a federal appeals court sent it back for trial, would not let jurors hear Hughes' deposition.

Defense attorneys blamed the department chaos on Strong, the fired former solid waste director who first notified Schmoke and federal investigators about landfill problems.

Strong, now director of Southeast Community Organization Inc., declined to comment yesterday on his differences with Balog but denied that he was responsible for the problems.

Mayor Martin O'Malley tried to determine yesterday how much the trial will cost city taxpayers.

A review of the city's indemnification agreement shows that taxpayers are responsible for $48,000 in compensatory damages awarded by the jury, the mayor said.

O'Malley, who as a councilman helped initiate a city probe of the landfill matter five years ago, said he has no intention of paying any more than is required.

"They're gone," O'Malley said of the department leaders he replaced shortly after taking office. "That was then; this is now."

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