Jury awards $927,000 in Conte firing

Towson U. professor had been director of RESI until 1998

Institute does research

University expects to appeal, claiming just reason for action

September 29, 2001|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore County Circuit Court jury awarded $927,000 yesterday to Michael A. Conte, a former Towson University professor who sued the school for firing him as director of the RESI economic institute in 1998.

A jury of 10 women deliberated seven hours before finding that the university breached its five-year contract by firing Conte after two years as director of RESI, which does economic research for state and private agencies.

Conte said that he considers the verdict a moral, but not a financial, victory.

"The most important thing is the jury found I'm an honest man, which I knew all along," said Conte, 54. "I do feel vindicated, but I don't feel compensated."

He said that he will have to pay about $400,000 in taxes on the award, and if the state appeals, lawyers' fees will amount to about $500,000.

"That leaves me with an award of $100,000, and at RESI, the bonus in 1997 alone was $124,000," he said.

Lawyers for the university said they expect to appeal.

Attorney Michael Anselmi said that he remains convinced that the school had sufficient reason to fire Conte.

The institute faced the possible loss of millions of dollars in contracts with the state Department of Human Resources if Conte remained RESI director, he said.

"There was strong evidence of DHR not trusting him," Anselmi said.

In closing arguments, Assistant Attorney General Dawna Cobb told jurors that state officials had lost confidence in Conte after he mismanaged a $5 million contract with the human resources department.

She said that when revenues fell, Conte held "meeting after meeting" rather than lay off some of RESI's 120 employees.

He was so obsessed with plans to privatize and expand the institute that he pulled employees off income-producing projects to make long-term expansion plans, she said.

Conte ran up a one-year deficit of $912,000 and alienated those around him, hanging up the telephone on one important client and publicly berating his staff, she told jurors.

"He had lost focus," Cobb told jurors. "He had become obsessed with making business plans and going private and making money because that's what going private is all about."

No warning of firing

But Conte's lawyers said that his dismissal came without warning. They said that because of the firing, he lost an $80,000 tenured faculty position and $776,000 in bonus pay that he would have earned over five years if he had remained RESI director.

Philip B. Zipin, Conte's lawyer, said Conte founded the institute in 1989, moved it to Towson University in 1996 and considered it so much "his baby" that his license plate read "RESI."

He said Conte increased revenues at the institute from $1.5 million in 1996 to $6.8 million by 1998.

"That's the kind of incompetence I'd like to have in my business," Zipin said.

But he said Conte's relations with former university President Hoke L. Smith and former Provost John Haeger began to sour when he pressed them to pay $124,000 in bonuses he was promised for work that he performed in his first year at the school.

Conte's salary as institute director was $127,000, but his contract called for bonuses if annual revenues exceeded $1.5 million, Zipin said.

"He lost his future," Zipin said in closing arguments. "His future was as director of this institute."

Zipin called the verdict a "huge win."

"It's a complete vindication for my client, after he's spent three years battling to restore his reputation and his self esteem," Zipin said.

Towson University President Mark L. Perkins was out of town and unavailable for comment.

But Anselmi said he considers the award a compromise.

Averaging two claims

Conte's financial experts testified that his dismissal cost him $1.6 million; Towson's experts gave jurors an estimate of about $200,000.

Jurors, who at one point asked for a calculator during deliberations, said they averaged the two estimates.

The jurors, who would not give their names, said the university's contract with Conte was poorly written and that the university presented insufficient evidence to show intentional misconduct or willful neglect, which the contract specified as grounds for dismissal.

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