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Defense asks for mistrials over Angelos offer to judge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Citing an "appearance of impropriety," defense lawyers filed motions for mistrial yesterday in five asbestos injury trials because of a job offer from plaintiffs' attorney Peter G. Angelos to Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward J. Angeletti.

In the motions, lawyers for ACandS Inc. said they were seeking mistrials in all of the asbestos trials that began July 10, not just the one before Angeletti, because the judge made pretrial rulings affecting all the proceedings.

The motions criticized Angeletti for not disclosing the Angelos offer until after the trials had begun. They stated that the offer was pending while Angeletti was presiding over settlement talks and after pretrial motions had been filed.

In the trial in which he was presiding, Angeletti denied the motion yesterday morning after a brief hearing.

Angeletti said in his ruling that he was "mindful of all of the issues that are raised" and of the obligation to ensure a fair trial.

But he said there was no indication that the jury was influenced by accounts of the Angelos offer. "I'm satisfied that there really is no manifest necessity for granting a motion for a mistrial," he said.

Judges in the other trials did not act as swiftly on the motions.

Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller, one of the five judges hearing the cases, set a hearing on the motions for mistrial for today. But it was unclear whether the hearing would involve just the cases before her or would include those pending before the other judges as well.

Heller declined to comment on the motions.

Senior Judge Richard T. Rombro said at midday that he had not yet scheduled a hearing or made a ruling. Judge Allan L. Schwait also had not made a ruling, according to an aide.

An aide to Judge M. Brooke Murdock referred all calls to Heller.

The disclosure of Angelos' offer to Angeletti - made in court last week and again on Tuesday - has cast a cloud over the Baltimore Circuit Court's efforts to clear a backlog of thousands of cases of workers whose asbestos injury claims have languished for more than a decade.

Under a plan developed by Heller, she and four other judges began hearing the backlogged cases in clusters of up to 30 on July 10.

Angeletti, who retired in November after 19 years on the bench and once managed the court's asbestos docket, was one of the five judges assigned to hear the cases. It is not unusual for retired judges to be asked to return to the bench when cases accumulate.

On Tuesday, Angeletti said in court that he had been offered a job by Angelos' firm, which has made millions of dollars suing asbestos firms, on June 23 and that the offer had been withdrawn June 30.

Saying he wanted to "make the record complete" after initial public disclosure of the offer in court July 12, Angeletti said that as a retired judge he was "free to consider opportunities elsewhere."

Angeletti's mention of the offer last week - on the third day of the trials - came as he denied a motion by ACandS that he remove himself from presiding over the trial because of the offer.

Angelos, a highly successful trial attorney whose holdings include downtown real estate and majority ownership of the Baltimore Orioles, said Tuesday that he had made Angeletti a "very substantial" offer to head up his firm's pending litigation against lead paint manufacturers. Angelos dismissed as "absurd" the suggestion that the offer was designed to make Angeletti favorably disposed to his clients in the pending asbestos cases.

In the written motions for mistrial, ACandS lawyer Donald S. Meringer said the company's pretrial motions were filed June 15 and were pending while Angelos' offer was on the table.

Heller informed lawyers for the plaintiffs and the defense June 16 that Angeletti would preside over one of five trial groups that would begin July 10, according to the motions.

Between June 26 and June 30, while the job offer was pending but before it was disclosed, "settlement negotiations involving Judge Angeletti were done in part by telephone and at meetings with judge on June 27 and June 30," the motions stated.

On July 7, Angeletti denied all six of the defendant's pretrial procedural motions and granted four of the six plaintiffs' motions, Meringer wrote.

The timing of Angeletti's statement on the Angelos offer "raises questions as to the impartiality of the court," the motions said.

"Rather than informing the parties of the job offer at the time the offer was extended, Judge Angeletti waited over two weeks to inform counsel and did so only in an attempt to quell a rumor that was spreading concerning the offer," Meringer wrote.

"It should be obvious to a reasonable person that there is an appearance of impropriety with Judge Angeletti presiding over these matters in light of the job offer from the Angelos office," he added.

"For one," he said, "Judge Angeletti did not disclose the job offer when it was made. Judge Angeletti's subsequent disclosure was a step in the right direction, but ultimately inadequate.

"The real issue is created by the fact that Judge Angeletti continued to participate in settlement negotiations and was in a position to consider motions before the court while the job offer from the Angelos firm was pending."

During the hearing on the motion before Angeletti yesterday, another ACandS attorney, Catherine A. Mohan, said she felt her client had "no choice" but to ask for a mistrial.

"The importance of receiving a fair trial on the first [of the group of] cases is critical," she said. "My client has been prejudiced and feels this cannot be cured."

Bruce Hill, an attorney for the plaintiffs, countered that after 10 days of testimony and thousands of dollars in legal expenses, "it would be entirely unfair to the clients of the law offices of Peter Angelos to grant a mistrial at this point."

In denying the motion for mistrial, Angeletti said he informed Heller promptly of the Angelos offer and of its withdrawal.

"And so there was full, complete disclosure to the person to whom this court is responsible," Angeletti said. "And in those discussions, Judge Heller and this court felt there was nothing that had occurred that would require any further disclosure ...

"And as the court previously indicated, as a retired judge, this court is free to consider employment opportunities from whatever source they come."

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