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  Orioles Owner Masters Political Clout

By Daniel LeDuc and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 28, 1999; Page C01

In February, dozens of asbestos victims were told by a Maryland appellate court that their compensation for pain and suffering would be capped at $350,000. So their lawyer went to work.

He drafted a bill to undo the court's ruling and found willing, powerful allies to sponsor it in the Maryland legislature – the Senate finance chairman and the House majority leader.

Today, the lawyer is making history in Havana as the baseball team he owns – the Baltimore Orioles – becomes the first major league team to play in Cuba in 40 years. That's how most people know Peter G. Angelos: the hard-driving, outspoken, hands-on owner of the Orioles.

But he also is viewed by many political insiders as the most powerful private citizen in Maryland.

With a personal fortune of millions, huge contributions to state and national Democrats, a tight relationship with top labor leaders and the cachet of his Orioles ownership, Angelos is a potent force in the halls of power. In Annapolis, he employs a former state senator as his personal lobbyist, meets legislators for dinner at his favorite Italian restaurant and, when necessary, brings in Orioles celebrities such as Cal Ripken Jr. to awe lawmakers.

That unparalleled influence allows Angelos a twist on the lawyer's adage: If the facts are against you, argue the law; if the law is against you, change it.

He made most of his first fortune as a plaintiff's lawyer in asbestos cases, and his Baltimore law firm still handles the bulk of them in Maryland. The bill that he drafted to reverse the court ruling is pending in Annapolis. It would lift the cap on awards in asbestos cases – and only asbestos cases – potentially earning more money for his firm.

Over the years, Angelos has used his amassed power to change laws that have benefited his law practice and helped ensure that his cases come out on top. At his request, more judges have been named to hear asbestos cases in Baltimore, and significant alterations in state law have made it easier to sue asbestos makers and tobacco companies.

Angelos was the state's lawyer in suing cigarette makers to recoup past Medicaid payments for smoking-related illnesses, and he now stands to earn a fee that could be as high as $1 billion.

"The legislation I introduce is meant to reinstitute the litigation rights our citizens once had," said Angelos, who argued that corporate interests – but not ordinary citizens' – are well represented in the legislature, prompting his action on the asbestos bill. "Who's going to do it but me? I don't want to be the author of the bill. But I have to be."

Few people who aren't elected to the legislature will declare themselves "author" of a bill, but most Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly don't quibble with Angelos on such points. Whether they are entranced by his personal magnetism, enamored of his generous campaign contributions or in philosophical agreement with his role as plaintiff-lawyer and protector of the little guy against corporate bullying, Angelos has few Democratic critics and many powerful Democratic fans.

From Democratic presidents to U.S. senators to governors, his support is courted and his interests protected. One day last week, a reporter requested an interview with Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to talk about Angelos. While awaiting a response from the governor's office, the reporter went to see Angelos and was sitting in Angelos's office when the phone rang.

"Hello, Parris," Angelos said. "Yes, he's here right now."

Glendening later said that in addition to telling Angelos about the Post interview request, he had other things to discuss with the prominent lawyer, who has helped persuade some lawmakers to support the governor's legislative agenda.

"He's very influential, very powerful," said the governor, who said he has told Angelos that he'll sign this year's asbestos bill if it clears the legislature. "He has real impact and is a real player and, in my estimation, deserves to be. He's taking on battles that have to be fought."

Republicans, however, see Angelos's almost annual campaign for legislation in Annapolis – proposals known by their yearly shorthand, "the Angelos bill" – as less than altruistic.

"Every time, it's a bill that lines Peter Angelos's pocket," said House Minority Whip Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard). "Peter Angelos is good for the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party has been very good to Peter Angelos."

Angelos's supporters say it is too easy to criticize the lawyer as only out for himself. His empire has grown so large, his benevolence so vast, they say, that to help Angelos is to help the whole state.

"Peter Angelos in and of himself is a major economic interest in the state," said Majority Leader John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery), who is sponsoring the House version of the asbestos bill. "He owns a major sports franchise. He represents major plaintiff cases. There's been no other individual like that."

Humble Beginnings

Angelos's rise to power and influence was a long and difficult trip. Born on the Fourth of July just months before the Great Depression dawned in 1929, he grew up with little money in Highlandtown, an ethnic neighborhood in East Baltimore, hard by Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point steel mill. The son of Greek immigrants, he attended night classes at the University of Baltimore's law school as he worked at his family's restaurant and tavern.

Steelworkers who drank beer there at shift's end became Angelos's friends and, later, his clients. In the mid-1960s, some of those workers began getting sick; they had been breathing asbestos particles for years. It was in the insulation, the pipe covers, everywhere.

Thousands of them began contracting asbestosis, a chronic lung inflammation that leads to a horrible death. The steelworkers asked Angelos to help them seek legal redress.

"Our guys were dying in the mill," says Primo Padeletti, who was treasurer of the big steelworkers union Local 2610. "I reached out to Peter almost immediately. I knew him. Here was a guy I grew up with. I'll never forget talking to Peter, saying, 'Come on, come with us.' He said, 'I don't know that much about labor.' "

He quickly learned.

The asbestos cases made Angelos rich, enabling him to buy the Orioles for $173 million with some partners in 1993 and the 22-story One Charles Place office building in downtown Baltimore, to make plans to develop a hotel near the city's Inner Harbor, to make a bid for the Washington Redskins and to begin contributing to Democrats in a big way.

He remains a neighborhood guy in a good suit. But it's off the rack, and one afternoon last week, his silk tie was blotched with a dark food stain.

Conversation with Angelos ranges from Kosovo to baseball coverage to politics. Lots of politics.

Angelos served a term on the Baltimore City Council in the 1960s and made an unsuccessful bid for mayor when he was 37. He has not run for office since. But, said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany), "he's still in the game, he's just playing a different position – broker, sponsor, fighter."

Angelos has been solicited by Vice President Gore for the Democratic National Committee, and last year, he contributed $230,000 to the national Democratic Party, putting him in the highest tier of donors. This year, he was the largest contributor to Glendening's inaugural ball, giving $40,000 through the Orioles and his law firm.

At a recent dinner that Glendening attended with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, the governor invited her to attend the Orioles opening day game. "She said, 'Tell me about Peter Angelos,' " Glendening said.

And on March 10, at the George Hotel in Washington, 15 U.S. senators, including Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Democratic Senate Campaign Committee head Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), gathered to salute Angelos at a private dinner that Glendening, Taylor and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) also attended.

"It was very nice, and I appreciated it," Angelos said during an interview at his offices on the eve of his departure for Havana. "That's good politics. It's constituent acknowledgment."

Controversial Legislation

This year's Angelos bill to lift the cap on noneconomic damages in asbestos cases has been one of the session's most controversial. Business has lined up to oppose it. Some liberal lawmakers have criticized it for singling out asbestos at the expense of lawsuits where victims of other illnesses or accidents may have been just as grievously harmed.

Adding to the controversy is that one member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which is considering the bill, is Norman R. Stone Jr., the Senate's most senior member, the Senate president pro tempore and a lawyer at Angelos's firm.

"I don't tell him how to vote," Angelos said. "He's the most honest guy in the legislature."

Three years ago, with his thousands of asbestos cases clogging Baltimore's courts, Angelos sought the creation of additional judgeships. Top state court officials opposed him, saying he was going outside correct procedures.

But Angelos brought in Ripken, who posed for pictures with lawmakers at a reception, and Taylor, the House speaker, personally lobbied for the bill. Four new judges were named.

Last year, Angelos provoked the most acrimonious debate of the General Assembly session when he sought a bill to use statistical evidence in the state's case against the tobacco industry. Even some Angelos allies argued that the proposal was changing the rules in the middle of the state's lawsuit.

With billions of dollars at stake, the legislature approved the bill. Maryland will receive more than $4 billion over the next 20 years as part of the nationwide settlement with cigarette makers. Angelos, who fronted all of the state's legal expenses, has a contract to receive 25 percent of the settlement.

"Does he get his share? Of course he does. I have no problem with that," said Glendening, who sees the fees as a good investment, considering the return the state is receiving. "Give me three more Peter Angeloses, and we don't have to worry about the budget."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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