A federal jury awarded two Baltimore public works employees $178,000 in combined damages yesterday after determining that former Director George G. Balog and a top aide "maliciously, wantonly and oppressively" retaliated against the whistle-blowing underlings.
The eight-member civil jury took two hours and 45 minutes after the weeklong trial to return with the verdict and damages. The decision was so unexpectedly quick that Balog, the city's public works director for 12 years, was absent from the courtroom when the verdict was announced.
The award to solid waste engineers Jeanne Robinson and David Marc fell far below the combined $1.5 million they sought, but the two rejoiced in the decision, clenching their fists."It has been a long, hard fight," said Howard J. Schulman, attorney for the employees, who filed the suit four years ago. "An extremely important constitutional right has been vindicated, and the damages send an important message to public officials."
Two attorneys hired by the city to defend Balog and his solid waste director, Leonard H. Addison, declined to comment on the verdict. Assistant City Solicitor Michael J. Raimondi said that the city - which has spent $550,000 to defend Balog and two former top aides - will appeal the decision.
One of those aides, former general services supervisor Robert F. Guston, was dismissed from the suit Thursday.
The case began five years ago when solid waste director Kenneth J. Strong complained that contractors hired by the city failed to properly repair the Quarantine Road Landfill leachate pond near Hawkins Point.
Strong refused Balog's order to put the facility that catches contaminated runoff back into service and took his concerns to then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Schmoke, who testified Friday in the case, told jurors that he found no problems with the repairs or contract. City attorneys also reviewed Strong's objections, which were unproven, Schmoke said.
Strong made his complaints public at a city Board of Estimates hearing in December 1995. At the hearing, Robinson and Marc - then engineers under Strong - were called to testify about the repair problems.
Soon after, Balog fired Strong for insubordination. The U.S. attorney and the FBI then began a criminal investigation into the department over the contract for the leachate pond. Robinson and Marc, who testified before federal investigators, said they were ostracized by Balog and his department leaders shortly thereafter.
City computers and cars were taken from Robinson and Marc, who said they were also denied promotions and overtime as a result of making statements to the Board of Estimates and federal agencies.
The two filed a civil rights claim in U.S. District Court in 1996, saying that their rights to free speech were violated when the department leaders penalized them for speaking out to city and federal officials.
Last week, Robinson and Marc became choked up on the stand, testifying that fellow employees feared Balog so much that they refused to ride elevators with the two of them. Others would cross the street in order not to be seen with them, they said.
"I feel like a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders," Marc said as he left the courthouse yesterday. "It was like David and Goliath."
U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin initially threw the case out, saying that Balog and his aides were protected in their speech by government immunity as public officials. But a three-member federal appeals panel in Richmond, Va., overruled Smalkin last year, sending the case to trial.
City taxpayers would likely be responsible for the damages, although Schulman asked that Balog and Addison, who are no longer with the department, be held personally liable for the verdict.
Balog would be responsible for $105,000 and Addison, $73,000, the jury said in its decision.
Neither Balog nor Addison could be reached for comment on the verdict last night.
In closing arguments yesterday, attorneys hired by the city argued that Robinson and Marc were not penalized for their comments over the landfill but that changes to their jobs and status were caused by a $4 million budget deficit in their department.
Balog's attorney, Benjamin W. Hahn of Annapolis, told the jury of five women and three men that Robinson and Marc were unfairly tangled in a battle between Balog and Strong for control of the Public Works Department. Hahn contended that Strong initiated the complaints, hoping to get his childhood friend, Schmoke, to remove Balog.
In his closing arguments, Hahn likened Balog to an Eskimo dog sledder. When Strong began infighting among the pack, Balog needed to whack the employees back into shape to keep the department moving, he said.
"Ken Strong was causing that dogfight," Hahn said. "You don't need a bunch of dogs snarling at one another, because you know what happens? You stop dead."
But in his final comments to the jury before they began deliberating, Schulman pointed to Robinson and Marc, saying that they were unfairly abused by Balog and department leaders for telling the truth about a faulty repair project that cost taxpayers $200,000 more than bid.
"They're not dogs, they're people," Schulman said. "And they have a right to speak in public matters."
"Sometimes an individual has to have the courage to speak up, even when there is a code of silence," he said. "To permit retaliation would put the government beyond the reach of correction."