Firing of Ambridge defies (this) explanation

January 09, 2001|By Michael Olesker

ON THE telephone, in the afterglow of firing Tony Ambridge as Baltimore's real estate officer, City Comptroller Joan Pratt attempts an explanation. It does not quite arrive. She says the city needs a new direction. She says tougher financial times are coming, which may include municipal layoffs and decreased services. She blames Ambridge for absolutely none of this.

But he is gone anyway, terminated Friday afternoon when Pratt called him into her office and said, "Things aren't working out." This, after Ambridge helped save the city $8 million over four years on the job. This, after years as a voice of integrity on the City Council.

"She didn't give me a reason," Ambridge said Saturday morning. "I wish she had."

"Yes, I did," Pratt said Sunday night. "I said we needed a change."

What kind of change? On this, Pratt attempted another explanation that did not quite arrive.

"We need real estate deals," she said, "better shaped to help the citizens. We've had too many deals that benefited contractors and developers, but not the citizens."

Such as?

"Such as The Brokerage," Pratt said. "That deal was structured so that the developer got a 16 percent return on his money. It's a piece of property worth millions. We don't benefit until after the developer benefits. I think there should be an equal sharing. Why should the developer benefit before the city does?"

And, Pratt was asked, that was Ambridge's deal?

"Well, no," Pratt said. "That was the BDC's [Baltimore Development Corporation]."

Oh.

"Or the Power Plant, or the Chart House deals," Pratt said. "I don't believe we should be giving 99-year deals that don't benefit the city."

And these were Ambridge's deals?

"No, I'm not saying they were Tony's deals," Pratt said. "They were the BDC's. I'm just saying, I think we need a change."

Oh.

When news of Ambridge's termination leaked, reaction was dramatic. Mayor Martin O'Malley lauded Ambridge. Former Mayor William Donald Schaefer lauded Ambridge. City Council President Sheila Dixon lauded Ambridge. Then Dixon said something else:

"There have been rumors about [Pratt] getting rid of Tony for a year and a half."

In fact, Ambridge can fix the precise date: June 28, 1999. As it happens, it was his birthday. As he remembers it, he got a telephone call from Lawrence Bell, who was running for mayor that summer, and Julius Henson, who was simultaneously running Bell's campaign and Joan Pratt's. Henson also has a longtime personal relationship with Pratt.

"Henson said, `We need to talk to you,'" Ambridge recalled. "I said, `I'm busy, it's my birthday.' He said, `We'll come out there.' We met at Rothwell's, on Padonia Road."

At this time, Bell's huge early lead in the mayoral polls was beginning to evaporate. Ambridge says he suspected what Bell and Henson had in mind: Enter the mayor's race to take votes away from O'Malley, thus splitting the city's white vote as Bell and Carl Stokes seemed to be splitting black voters. Anticipating the overture, Ambridge says, he put a piece of paper in his pocket, reading: "I will not run for mayor."

"Henson said, `We've looked at the [poll] numbers, and O'Malley's coming on strong.'" Ambridge recalls. "So they told me they wanted me to run. I took out my piece of paper. They said, `Why are you being so rash?' I said, `Because I don't want to be mayor.'

"And Henson said, `We don't want you to win, we just want you to run. We want you to take votes away from O'Malley. You don't even have to campaign.' I said no. They said, `Well, Mr. Housing Commissioner, you ought to rethink this.' In other words, they were saying, `We'll make you housing commissioner if you play along.'

"I said, `If I have to earn it like that, I don't want it.' Then Henson said, `What do you have to lose?' I said, `My good name.' I said, `You don't even know what I'm talking about, do you?' And I turned and walked out."

Ambridge said the Bell camp later made a similar offer to Wilbur Cunningham, the former city councilman who is now a vice president of the Living Classrooms Foundation.

"Absolutely," Cunningham said over the weekend. "I was told, if I'd run and help Bell get elected, I could have any job I wanted. Bell said to me, `What job do you want?' I said, `None. I don't want to get any job that way. I wouldn't go into any political race unless I was trying to win. It's not ethical.'"

Ambridge believes his fate was sealed when he turned down Henson's deal. When neither Ambridge nor Cunningham accepted, Henson went into campaign overdrive: When Del. Howard P. Rawlings attempted to endorse O'Malley in a speech at War Memorial Plaza, it was Henson who organized the infamously thuggish response that backfired, turning public sentiment against Bell - and, in the aftermath, setting off insider rumors at City Hall that Ambridge would ultimately pay a price for refusing Henson.

Is that why Ambridge was fired?

"Absolutely not," Joan Pratt said Sunday night. "Absolutely, this was not an act of retribution. Julius has been my adviser in the past. Yes, we still consult. Yes, he called me after I dismissed Tony. But this wasn't an act of retaliation. Why would I wait 18 months to retaliate?"

Pratt, said to have her own mayoral plans, said she had no knowledge of any meetings between Henson and Ambridge. She said Henson never pressured her to terminate Ambridge.

Then why was Ambridge fired?

"I have the highest admiration for Tony," Pratt said. "He did a fine job as real estate officer. But we needed a change of direction."

Oh.

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