Attorney William J. Murphy has been appointed conservator of Peter Angelos’ law firm, taking control of the practice built by the now-incapacitated legal titan and Orioles owner amid a bruising family fight over his assets.
Murphy, a partner with Zuckerman Spaeder in Baltimore, declined to comment on his appointment by a court order issued Tuesday.
He is currently involved in another high-profile case, with law partner Gregg Bernstein, representing an anonymous group of people who fought to keep secret a court battle over releasing a Maryland Attorney General’s Office investigative report on child sexual abuse in Baltimore’s Catholic archdiocese. The church is paying, in part, for the lawyers for the group, made up of people named in the report but not as abusers.
In a bit of historical symmetry, Murphy previously represented former Orioles owner Eli S. Jacobs, the financier who bought the Orioles in 1988 but whose bankruptcy in 1993 led to the team being auctioned off to the highest bidder. That was Peter Angelos, who organized a group of local investors and partnered with a competing bidder to buy the team for what was then a record $173 million.
Murphy had represented Jacobs in a $36 million libel suit filed in August 1991 against a Baltimore-based business magazine, Warfield’s, over an article that alleged he had financial difficulties. The suit was settled, without disclosing publicly whether there was a monetary award, and the publisher apologized for the article in the final issue, in December 1991, after five years of publication.
Now, Murphy will take over the Angelos firm’s records, bank accounts and client files, and ultimately assess whether it should be sold or dissolved.
It’s a fate that would have been unimaginable in the firm’s prime, when it won hundreds of millions of dollars in awards and settlements against companies found to have harmed steel mill and shipyard workers and others with asbestos exposure.
But the firm had become one of the points of contention in a legal battle that has erupted among family members of Angelos, 93, who has been in failing health for about five years and is no longer able to manage his affairs.
His younger son, Louis, has sued his brother John, the chairman and CEO of the Orioles, and their mother, Georgia, saying they were working to seize control of the ailing patriarch’s fortune. The suit revealed that Georgia Angelos wanted to sell the Orioles and either sell or wind down the law firm. Last week, Louis Angelos added a claim that his mother and brother “plundered” more than $64 million from a bank account held by Peter Angelos.
Georgia Angelos sued her younger son, saying he had sold the Angelos law firm to himself in a transfer that amounted to theft and financial “elder abuse.”
At a hearing last week, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Keith R. Truffer accepted an agreement between lawyers for both sides to put the firm in conservatorship and invalidate Louis Angelos’ transfer of the firm to himself. Louis Angelos, who is a lawyer and had been managing the firm since his father’s incapacitation, had said in court filings that the transfer was necessary because state law requires that the firm of an attorney who becomes disabled be taken over by another attorney.
The bar counsel of the state’s Attorney Grievance Commission, which upholds the rules of professional conduct, filed a petition Jan. 26 recommending that Murphy be named the conservator of the Angelos firm.
According to the petition by Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless, Murphy will be paid “at a reduced hourly rate of $775,” and may be assisted by other Zuckerman Spaeder attorneys and staff at hourly rates ranging from $360 to $775, billed to Peter Angelos and/or his estate.
The petition noted that Angelos was admitted June 15, 1961, to the bar and was the sole owner of his firm. He had built the practice into a powerhouse, at one point litigating the nation’s largest-ever asbestos trial. The wealth he amassed allowed Angelos to lead the investors’ group buying the Orioles, and he remains the team’s majority owner.
The Angelos firm also was selected by the state to sue tobacco companies to recoup Medicaid money spent treating ailing smokers, which led to a $4 billion settlement. In more recent years, however, as asbestos cases have waned, the firm has shrunk in size.
On Tuesday, Truffer granted the petition, saying “unless a conservator is appointed, immediate, substantial, and irreparable harm may result to Mr. Angelos’ and the firm’s clients.”
The Morning Sun
Maryland allows for a conservator to be appointed under certain circumstances, such as when an attorney becomes incapacitated.
Now Murphy will be given access to the firm’s offices to inventory its files and take control of its bank accounts. Among his powers are to assist clients in finding new attorneys, delegate tasks to attorneys and staff at both the Angelos firm and his own, and, with the court’s approval, sell the practice. He also can hire accountants and other advisers to determine whether the law firm should be sold or wound down.
While they were loath to speak on the record about so sensitive an issue, several lawyers who have worked with Peter Angelos over the years said it was sad to see his family fighting and his once-mighty firm facing such an uncertain future.
Paul D. Bekman, who like Angelos has long specialized in personal injury cases, said the conservator will have to determine what happens with the firm’s staff and clients, many of who have been with the practice for a long time.
“I think the concern is that everything be done the right way,” he said.
Bekman said he thinks the case in general and the conservatorship in particular are in good hands. He noted that Murphy is president-elect of the American College of Trial Lawyers, an invitation-only group that seeks to maintain and improve standards in the profession.
“Bill Murphy,” he said of the conservator, “is the right guy.”