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After six years of tumultuous litigation, a federal jury in Pennslvania on Tuesday flatly rejected claims of race discrimination brought by the former director of Montgomery County, Pa.’s Housing Services Department who said he was fired for complaining that he was being singled out for harsh discipline because he is black. Robert Wright was fired from his $51,908-a-year post in June 1996 after the county received a scathing HUD audit report that said the county’s rehabilitation of owner-occupied and rental units was riddled with problems. The HUD report was based on a 2 1/2-year investigation of the two programs. Wright’s lawyer, Theodore Q. Thompson, told the jury that Wright was the highest-ranking black official in county government at the time and that the county’s explanation for getting rid of him was merely a pretext for racism. Thompson said Wright was unfairly accused of mismanagement since he had no authority to run his department. “He was given a title, but no power … . He couldn’t make a change if he wanted to,” Thompson said. But the county’s lawyer, John M. Elliott of Blue Bell, Pa.’s Elliott Reihner Siedzikowski & Egan, urged the jury to use its common sense and exonerate the county and its three elected commissioners. Elliott said Wright was fired not only for his mismanagement of the department, but also for failing to disclose serious conflicts of interest that arose when he used HUD contractors to work on his own home and investment properties. The three former commissioners — Mario Mele, Richard S. Buckman and Joseph M. Hoeffel III — gave Wright a fair chance to answer the charges in a hearing, Elliott said, but Wright failed to come forward with good explanations for the allegations lodged against him in the HUD report. In his closing argument, Elliott said the commissioners had acted “properly and courageously” to protect the federal HUD funds after the audit detailed Wright’s alleged misconduct. The real victims in the case, Elliott said, were the low-income citizens in the county who had a right to expect that the funds would be used to improve access to affordable housing. Elliott told the jury that any verdict in Wright’s favor would “send a chilling message to public officials who won’t stand up to protect the public interest.” The county, Elliott said, “bent over backwards to give Mr. Wright every chance to answer the HUD report’s findings of conflict of interest, mismanagement, non-disclosure and misconduct.” Elliott also told the jury that two white employees working under Wright were fired soon after HUD issued the first draft of its report. Wright was fired only after the final HUD report was issued, he said. Thompson told the jury that the county had “rushed to judgment” after the HUD report. But Elliott insisted there was “no rush to judgment” and that the evidence showed the county instead conducted its own investigation before firing Wright. During Wright’s two-day hearing with the county, Elliott said, Wright’s lawyer promised the commissioners that he would come forward with proof that Wright was not acting with a conflict of interest. But when more than a week had passed after the hearing and Wright had not supplied any answers to the questions raised, Elliott said, the commissioners voted to confirm his termination. In the final moments of his closing speech, Elliott told the jury that Wright deserved absolutely nothing. “You didn’t see Robert Wright here; you saw Robert Wrong,” Elliott said. “If you give him a penny, you will open the floodgates of irresponsibility. Do your duty and return a verdict in favor of all of the defendants and nothing for Mr. Wright,” Elliott said.

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