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When Harry Sporidis decided to leave the Washington Group last year, everyone seemed to be on good terms. His boss, CEO Susan Molinari, wished him luck and said she wanted to make his transition smooth. Sporidis says she told him to call her every Tuesday with the hottest gossip, and they planned to have lunch the third Thursday of each month. Heck, there was probably a hug, Molinari acknowledged in a deposition that came later. The former New York congresswoman explained: “He’s ethnic, I’m ethnic.” But days before Sporidis started his new job at Powell Goldstein last October, the Washington Group sued him for $530,000 in damages (plus punitive damages), accusing him of breaching a noncompete agreement by taking two clients with him and soliciting others before he left. So much for the warm fuzzies. The lawsuit reads more like a Beltway version of You’ll Never Have Lunch in This Town Again. This isn’t how things usually get done around here. Lobbyists frequently move from job to job, taking clients with them. Suing a former lobbyist over clients is extraordinary, and this suit — filled with allegations, financial information, and e-mails such as the one from an executive saying the company would make his departure “ugly” — is a rare window into matters usually settled privately and quietly. In her deposition, Molinari describes the decision to file suit as a “controversial” one between the Washington Group and its corporate owners Ketchum, a unit of Omnicom Group. That’s not surprising, given how unusual such a lawsuit is on K Street. The lawsuit “is breaking norms, serious norms, in Washington,” says James Thurber, an American University professor who studies lobbying. The lawsuit exposes a gulf in understanding between lobbying firms and the public relations companies that now own many of them, which may not understand how Washington works, he says. “The cultural clash is obvious with this lawsuit, in my opinion,” he says. The judge in the case, Reggie Walton of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, has rejected three motions by the Washington Group that would have prevented Sporidis from working with the clients: Mentor, a breast implant company, and the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The suit describes them as among the Washington Group’s “most significant clients.” They paid the Washington Group $560,000 in 2006, and are now registered as Powell Goldstein clients. The case is scheduled for a settlement conference May 1, though it’s unclear whether an agreement is in the works. When asked about the suit, Sporidis would only say: “It’s my sincere hope that we’re going to come to a resolution on this soon.” He is represented by Alan Strasser of Robbins, Russell, Englert, Orseck, Untereiner & Sauber. Molinari and the firm’s attorney, Elizabeth Lalik of Littler Mendelson of McLean, Va., did not return calls seeking comment. A Ketchum spokeswoman said the firm wouldn’t comment on pending litigation. KEEPING CLIENTS QUIET Sporidis, a onetime senior legislative aide to former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), began working for the Washington Group in 2001. By the time he resigned in 2007, he was making $230,000 a year, according to court documents, and had received $40,000 in bonuses in the past two years. In the suit, the Washington Group says he developed relationships with clients at their expense and on their behalf. But the firm says he breached his duty by soliciting some of those clients to follow him to Powell Goldstein, something they say he started to do while he was still working for the Washington Group. The firm submitted e-mails from Sporidis that, they say, prove he told his clients about his decision to leave before he told Molinari and was communicating with Powell Goldstein about getting new contracts to his clients. The e-mails include a Sept. 21 message to a Powell Goldstein partner: Sporidis writes that “I am just hoping my clients don’t leak since they both now know what’s going on.” He met with Molinari the next week, and officially left in October. Sporidis says he gave his clients a heads up that he was considering a move because they had asked him to, and said they wanted to go with him if he left. Sporidis also says that when he told Molinari he was leaving, she told him his clients would need to terminate their contracts with the Washington Group by giving a required 30 days of notice. But soon after his conversation with Molinari, Sporidis was told he had agreed to a noncompete agreement when he accepted a 2005 stock agreement. According to the suit, in order to accept the stock, Sporidis had to electronically agree to the terms of the award, including noncompete language. Sporidis maintains he never would have agreed to sign a noncompete, had rejected the company’s prior efforts to get him to sign one, and would have forgone stock or left the firm before doing so. The two sides have gone back and forth over whether Ketchum has sufficient proof that he agreed, a dispute that has included testimony from officials at Fidelity, which handled the electronic process on its Web site. Shortly after the firm brought up the noncompete, Sporidis had lunch with Eugene Patrone, the Washington Group’s chief operating officer, say court documents. That day, Lorraine Thelian, a Ketchum executive in New York, e-mailed another Ketchum executive, noting, “Eugene took him to lunch today and was very clear that Ketchum was not going to let him walk with his clients, would make it ugly and ultimately endanger his chance of having a real job at the law firm.” Sporidis e-mailed Patrone after the lunch, thanking him for his “honesty and candor.” “I appreciate (as you said) that you don’t want me to be a man without an island and you are concerned that the firm to which I am going will discard me if there is litigation,” he wrote. “Although it is hard for me to think that I would really like working with Ketchum since they are willing to do the things you have indicated they could do, it may be that I may have to stay for the benefit of my family.” In her October deposition, Molinari says the Washington Group had urged Sporidis and Ketchum towards a settlement. When asked why the firm had not sued other former employees for breaching noncompete agreements, Molinari said it was her understanding that the firm was negotiating with two former employees, John Rafaelli and Richard Sullivan, who are now at Capitol Counsel. Molinari said the negotiations were about “Washington Group clients that left.” Rafaelli says his negotiations have been resolved, and the two firms now share some clients. Sullivan could not be reached. She also said the Washington Group had at one point hoped to negotiate an agreement with Sporidis over at least one of the clients. The firm has never sued a departing employee before. But if they win, it might upset the delicate balance between lobbyists and firms.
Carrle Levine can be contacted at [email protected].

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