When the baseball players strike threatened to scuttle two seasons" wo!th of ball, the whole sordid battle between petulant millionaire infielders and petulant millionaire owners produced only one hero in the public consCiousness -- Peter Angelos, the owner of the BaltimorOrioles, the owner who refused to field a team of replacement players. "An Owner Who Won't Play Ball With the Other Boys" was the Newsweek headline. U.S. News & World Report waxed a bit more messianic: "Everyone wants to hear [Angelos's] answers to basebali's problems, as if the words of one honorable, outspoken man might wipe out decades of avarice and mismanagement."
Missing from these valentines, however, was any description of the shady political moves that facilitated Angelos's noble posture. Peter Angelos may have played hardball with the other owners, but he went to the plate with a corked bat.
Angelos is a profile-writer's dream, the workingclass kid made good, the son of Greek immigrants who never forgot his Baltimore roots. As a young man, he worked at the steel mill for a dollar an hour, and pulled the tap at his father's tavern. A local boy, he graduated from the University of Baltimore's law school in 1960. After losing a bid to become ma'or some seven years later, Angelos turned his copious energies to the law, building a practice that made him very, very rich.
Eric Fdten is an editorial writer for theasashigton Times.
The law offce of Peter Angelos was a modest affair to begin with; his main client was the local steelworkers union. It wasn't the sort of legal work that makes one wealthy; he handled mostly a mundane stream of workman's compensation.
Those cases alone were not where the money was, and so Angelos built a solid personal injury practice as well, litigating claims of medical malpractice and negligence, auto accident injuries and the like. By the 1980s, according to the IVashington Post, Angelos was taking home more than $ 1 million a year -- well short of the staggering riches needed to buy a major league baseball franchise. That wealth was not far off, however, thanks to a fortuitous convergence of Angelos's main lines of business. He combined his labor and personal injury experience to mine one of the richest shafts ever prospected by the plaintiff's bar: asbestos.
Angelos likes to claim that his union friends came to him and begged that he take on the asbestos companies. "I didn't want to do asbestos litigation because I knew it would be all onsuming," Angelos told the IVashington Post. " I just got sent the cases." True enough, Angelos was sent an abundance of clients. But it was neither a surprise nor an imposition: Angelos arranged for local unions to send their members through his asbestos litigation mill.
"Most of the asbestos lawyers are deeply associated with the unions," says Albert Parnell, who gives seminars for the Defense Research Institute on how to fight asbestos cases. "If you're not a union guy, you have to advertise." Angelos was able to solicit clients at union meetings and soon had offcials of the locals sending their members to his expanding number of law offices -- offces located next door to union halls. Adjacent to those offces were clinics Called Medical Resources Management, shops that catered almost exclu- sively to the pre-trial needs of Angelos's potential clients. According to one lawyer involved in the Baltimore asbestos cases, the exams performed by the doctors at MRM were largely paid for under union health plans. Indeed, the lawyer says that to receive the free examination, Baltimore union members signed forms authorizing the locals" business offces to hand their cases over to the unions" attorney -- Angelos.
But Angelos didn't just wait for Clients to show up at his door. A mobile medical van plastered with the MRM logo went on fishing expeditions at union halls outside of Baltimore, from Cumberland, Md., to Pennsylvania. Medical personnel were always accompanied by a lawyer from the law offces of Peter Angelos.
Had Angelos only lined up cliens with serious asbestos ailments, all of this elaborate ecruitment would have been unnecessary and over-burdensome. The most serious -- and undisputed -- -disease caused by asbestos is mesothelioma, a cancer caused exclusively by asbestos fibers in the lungs. The cancer is aggressive and deadly, and is held up as the reason that companies traffcking in asbestos should be punished. But the disease accounted for only a small number of the 8,500 clients that Angelos ultimately recruited. Instead, most of Angelos's clients suffered from little more than what are known as pleural plaques, tiny scars on the lungs that neither lead to cancer nor inhibit breathing. Doctors providing expert testimony for the plaintiffs gave these scars a menacing name:
"asbestos lung disease."
The "asbestos lung disease" sufferers would not have won much money if their cases had gone to trial individually. But the avalanche of cases produced by the Angelos-union connection led the city of Baltimore to consolidate over 9,000 asbestos claims in one colossal class-action lawsuit. Even then, the meritorious cases might have been sifted from the frivolous:
There were supposed to be individual "mini-trials" to evaluate solitary claims after the single main trial had established who was liable for what. But most of the companies Angelos sued chose to settle rather than gamble on being bankrupted with punitive damages.
That left it to Angelos to divvy up the winnings among his clients, an arrangement that advocates of asbestos victims say shortchanged the few who were really sick. "Since everyone was lumped together, personal circumstances were not considered," says Deborah Addis, who worked for years with the Asbestos Victims" Campaign of Massachusetts. "The whole situation has been horrible."
Suspicions abound that among those with dubious health claims who nonetheless received settlements were family and friends of the some of the union officials who helped guarantee the client stream. ",ngelos gets most of his cases by referral from the unions. Presumably he rewards the union folk, which is traditional," says Lester Brickman, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York and an expert on asbestos litigation. "i know of several ways in which that is done. Primarily one includes family members of union offcials as plaintiffs." Perhaps there are other ways of fulfilling obligations, too: In the last several years, Angelos has hired a number of union officials to work for his firm. (Angelos did not return repeated phone calls and faxes.)
Most appalling to Brickman, Addis, and a host of others, however, is not the issue of how the plaintiff's share was divided, but the question of how much of the booty was reserved for the lawyers. Angelos has never said exactly how much of the $ 750 million settle- ment actually went to his 8,500 clients. The conservative estimate of the lawyers" cut is $ 250 million -- the standard one- third contingency fee. But in lawyer-friendly Mary- land, contingency fees of up to 50 percent are allowed. Many believe that Angelos extracted Something in the range of 40 percent of the settlement. That would have allowed him to pay litigator Ron Motley, who actually argued the cases in court, a cool $ 100 million while still pocketing over $ 200 million for himself. "The fees that the lawyers have taken are horrendous," says Ad- dis. "People are getting screwed."
Angelos shrugs off such criticism.Asked about his huge fees by the Washington Post, his answer was as simple as it was coy: "I didn't invent he system." "He's much too modest," says Brickman. Not only was Angelos one of the pioneers of mass litigation -- and thus in a position to help set precedent for accept- able legal fees in those peculiar circumstances -- -he has been an active lobbyist in Maryland'sicapitol, winning changes to state law that helped keep his mammoth class action alive. A Maryland Court of Appeals ruling in 1987 would have blocked Angelos from bringing claims on behalf of people who had been dead for more than three years. The ruling would have purged Angelos's class action of many of its most compelling individual cases: deadly mesotheliomas. With those cases excluded, the vast body of dubious "asbestos lung disease" cases would probably have lost in court. Angelos pushed for legislation introduced by a senior state senator, Democrat Norman Stone, that extended the statute of limitations in asbestos cases to seven years after death. Interestingly, though remaining in the Maryland Senate, Stone has since gone to work for the Law Offices of Peter Angelos.
Stone is not the only state senator in Annapolis of- ficially on the Angelos payroll, a fact that brings us back to the matter of baseball. In the last several years, Angelos has acquired legislators for his legal team much the same way he has bought up expensive free agents for the Orioles. Two of the 47 senators in the Maryland state capi- tol work for Angelos: In addition to Stone, Angelos four years ago hired another experienced lawmaker, De- mocratic Senator John Pica, Jr. The son of an old-school Baltimore politician, Pica first took a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates in 1979; since 1983 he has been a state senator. When he first started with Angelos, Pica was put on the asbestos litigation team, which even after the mass settlements still has about 2,000 cases pending. "Now I'm doing mostly medical negligence cases," Pica says. Because of his obligations as a state senator, he didn't have time to keep up with the asbestos work load.
That doesn't mean that Angelos hasn't got his money's worth out of Pica. Though Angelos is the sole partner of his firm, he has more than 60 attorneys working for him as associates, enough to handle the client load whether a given employee, such as Pica, is able to devote himself to the job or not. The obvious question is why a notoriously tough boss like Angelos would hire and retain an associate who doesn't have the time to do the job he was hired for. Many who have tangled with Pica in Annapolis think the answer is simple: While the legislature is in session, Pica may not be working at Angelos's Baltimore offices, but he may be working for Angelos just the same.
Take Senate Bill 719, emergency legislation passed by the Maryland legislature in late March and imme- diately signed into law by Governor Parris Glendening. Titled "An Act concerning Professional Base- ball -- Camden Yards," the law made it illegal to play replacement players at the Ori$ 1es" stadium of the same name. Had the strike worn on into the regular baseball season, Angelos would hve faced a number of unpleasant consequences from hi, celebrated refusal to hire non-union ballplayers. The American League might have tried to seize the Orioles from him, field- ing a team of the league's choosing in Baltimore's ball- park. And if Angelos fell afoul of the league, it would have meant defaulting on the terms of his lease at the stadium, which requires Angelos to "maintain the Bal- timore Orioles as an American League baseball team in good standing." Default could have made him liable for millions in damages. This was averted by the emer- gency baseball act: As long as it Was illegal to play re- placements, the American Leagucouldn't bring in its own team, and Angelos couldn't be held liable for not fielding a team. The sponsor of the law? Sen. John Pica. Co-sponsor? Sen. Norman tone.
At least one Republican lawmaker, Delegate Bob Flanagan, took the trouble tquestion the ethics of this cozy arrangement, and nearly received a beat- ing for it. "The bill was greased,"Flanagan says. "The result of Pica's bill was to relieve he Orioles of the risk of a breach of contract." Flanagan calculates that such a breach would have cost Angelos $ 5 or $ 6 million. Concerned about a "sweetheart deal," Flanagan took to the floor of the House of Delegates on a Monday night in March to ask that the emergency bill speeding through the legislature be held up for a few weeks to give the Ethics Committee time to investigate.
By the time word made it to Pica that Flanagan was challenging him and the baseball bill, Flanagan had already left the chamber. And a lucky thing it was, too. A furious Pica stormed from the Senate to the House and charged at the first Republican he could find, minority whip Richard La Vay. "Pica comes fly- ing onto the floor and gets within a snot's length of my nose, saying he would beat the living crap out of me," La Vay says. "I told him he had the wrong guy."
Pica is unrepentant about his outburst -- indeed, he seems to relish his reputation as a hothead. "I don't re- gret it at all," Pica says when asked about his con- frontation with La Vay. "! regretted that I didn't do more." Nor is he looking for any conciliation with Flanagan. "He's an a -- hole," Pica declares.
Pica can afford to be unrepentant because of the legislature's notorious laxity. The Ethics Committee did not hold up the baseball billdidn't chide Pica for pushing legislation favorable to his employer, and ig- noted his threat to pummel fellow lawmakers.
Pica had satisfied Maryland's ethics requirements by filing a simple form disclosing that the legislation he had proposed would affect his boss. He did not have to say how it would affect Angelos, and did not: notably absent was any mention of the millions of dol- lars at stake. Then again, Pica maintains there were no millions of dollars at stake: "It wouldn't have made a penny for Mr. Angelos," he says. "It would have cost him money. He would have been fined if he had field- ed a team." It's a curious argument, given that Angelos had no intention of fielding a strike-breaking team.
Pica's place on the Angelos roster helps his boss with more than just baseball. Having won the hearts and minds of sports-crazed Baltimore by keeping the Orioles in the city, Angelos has set out to solidify his place as "Mr. Baltimore" by bringing a National Foot- ball League team to the city that lost the Colts in 1984.
To do it, he needs the state to build a new football sta- dium next door to Camden Yards. The seed money is there, about $ 10 million in the Maryland Stadium Au- thority's football fund. But Angelos has not been able to lock it up yet because he hasn't been able to get his hands on an NFL team. He's still trying, but in the meantime those millions have become a tempting pot of cash in riscally strapped Maryland. Efforts have been made to use the money to build schools and pris- ons. And now there is a move to build a football stadi- um for the Washington Redskins in D.C.'s Maryland suburbs. To date, all of these attempts to get hold of the football fund have been blocked by Pica. He has said he will do whatever it takes to reserve the money for a Baltimore stadium -- a potent threat from a sena- tor willing to use his filibuster.
Asked whether his political actions don't make it look like he's wallowing in egregious conflicts of inter- est, Pica is as arrogant as he is terse: " Too bad."
The stand Angelos took against replacement play- ers has made for boffo box office (with an undeniable assist from Cal Ripken). Attendance at major league ball games has been in a well-deserved slump almost everywhere except Baltimore. Breaking with the own- ers was good public relations for Angelos, both person- ally and professionally. Who knows how many other owners would have liked to make the same stand but didn't have Angelos's legislative bullpen? It takes sig- nificant resources to be a folk hero.
Angelos got rich with a savvy, modern take on a hoary legal tradition: ambulance chasing. With his du- bious fortune, he bought more than just a baseball team. These are facts the profile writers might want to keep in mind next time they are looking for the new Mr. Deeds to come to town.
Eric Felten is an editorial writer for the Washington Times.