Conte's firing as director of RESI was `crushing' to him, jury told

But Towson U. tells panel hearing his lawsuit that he mismanaged institute

September 12, 2001|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Michael Conte, the former director of Towson University's well-known RESI economic institute, created the institute and ran it for nine years before the university wrongfully fired him, his lawyer told a Baltimore County jury yesterday.

"The institute was his idea, his creation, his baby, and to have it taken away from him has just been crushing," said Philip Zipin, Conte's lawyer.

But the university's lawyers told the jury yesterday that Conte mismanaged the institute, alienated the staff and ran up a debt of nearly $1 million before he was fired for incompetence in 1998.

"Michael Conte not only betrayed the promise and the trust placed in him by Towson University, but he blamed everyone but himself for the problems he caused," said Assistant Attorney General Mark Davis, who is representing the school.

Conte, an economist who founded the institute and moved it to Towson University in 1996, has filed a $5 million suit against the university, alleging that school officials breached his five-year contract when they fired him.

Zipin told jurors that relations between Conte and school officials began to sour when he pressed them to pay $124,000 in bonuses for work that he performed in his first year at the school. Conte's salary was $127,000, but his contract called for bonuses if the institute's annual revenues exceeded $1.5 million, Zipin said.

Zipin said Conte was owed the bonus because he brought in $4.8 million in contracts for economic analysis in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1997. He brought in $6.8 million the next year, Zipin said.

"He had done what he had promised. He had grown revenues tremendously," Zipin told jurors in opening statements yesterday.

But Davis said that by July 1998, the institute's accounts showed that it was operating at a deficit of $912,000. Much of that deficit was because Conte refused to lay off staff or address concerns from clients about the institute's day-to-day operations, he said.

Davis said the institute's main client, the state Department of Human Resources, stopped making payments in 1998 on a $5 million contract it had awarded RESI, noting Conte's poor planning as a major factor in the decision.

Conte also operated independently of the university officials until 1998 when Hoke L. Smith, then Towson's president, learned that RESI's contracts with the state Department of the Environment, the Motor Vehicle Administration and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City also were not being completed, Davis said.

"He [Conte] was blind to the need to keep his most important customer informed and happy," Davis said.

"His deficit nearly destroyed RESI."

The case, being heard before Baltimore County Circuit Judge Kathleen Cox, is expected to run two to three weeks.

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