A Life of Integrity
Charles A. Berardesco
OFFICIALLY, CHARLES BERARDESCO IS THE SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, GENERAL COUNSEL, corporate secretary, chief compliance officer, and diversity council chairman of Constellation Energy. But his business card simply reads, “Senior Vice President and General Counsel.” “That’s enough to let people know that I have a good title and they need to return my calls,” he reports wryly.
Perhaps the most distinguishing informal title not evident on Berardesco’s business card is his status as one of the few Fortune 500 senior executives who is openly gay.
Berardesco joined the Baltimore-based Constellation as associate general counsel in 2003 and has since ascended steadily to his current position. The dizzying constellation of hats he wears at the Fortune 500 company includes lawyer for the CEO, management committee, and board of directors; and head of the company’s 50-lawyer legal department. He especially enjoys another informal position within the firm. “One of my roles is chief ethics officer, but it’s not a formal title,” he explains. “People tend to turn to me, inside the company, on ethical matters. They seem to be comfortable stepping into my office and discussing something they might be questioning. It’s not one of the facets of my job that I can easily chart on a map, but it’s certainly one of the more interesting ones.”
Prior to Constellation, Berardesco was general counsel and corporate secretary of Fusara, a consortium of AIG, Kemper and Prudential. Before that, he was senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of HCIA, a publicly held health care information company. He was also counsel with Piper Rudnick (now DLA Piper); and a partner with Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, where he chaired the corporate department. Throughout his varied professional experiences, Berardesco has maintained a sense of the significance of attorneys in the vast corporate mechanism.
“It’s important that a lawyer always remember that he or she is a lawyer first—that’s a little maxim that I share with all the attorneys in my department,” he says . “It’s very easy in a meeting to get caught up in the business side of things, but lawyers must remember that people are depending on them to address the legal issues. I always try to make it clear what role I’m playing on a tough issue. I’ll make sure to say ‘this is my view as a lawyer,’ and then I might also give my opinion as someone who’s been involved in business for 25 years.”
Because of his impressive track record in the profession, Berardesco stands out as a role model to many, but his being “out” at work since 1998 has earned him an additional cadre of admirers: “Charlie [Berardesco] sends a message and sets the tone that you don’t have to check your identity at the door,” says Denise Galambos, associate general counsel for labor and employment at Constellation. “He pushes staff to think about diversity all the time— how we deal with people at work and in our hires.
“Part of my job is compliance, making sure we do not discriminate,” adds Galambos. “We take it a step further to actively recruit people. It helps a lot when your GC really cares about that.”
Berardesco came out three years into his first in-house position. “I definitely made a conscious decision to reveal my sexual orientation because I wanted to live my life with more integrity,” he says. “At the time [I came out] I was at my first in-house position and had been with that company for three years. While not all the conversations about my coming out were easy, all of them were respectful.”
While the Fortune 500 includes other general counsel who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), few are as open as Berardesco about their sexual orientation. Berardesco has always felt very strongly about diversity, and continues to grow increasingly thoughtful: “People tend to be more open minded regarding equal rights for gay employees when they personally know someone who is gay,” he explains. “But the challenge lies in how you message that corporate-wide. Because I’m the officer of a big public company with a good career, I’m in a unique position to make people more aware.”
Soon after being named VP at Constellation, Berardesco went to company CEO Mayo A. Shattuck III and asked if he could use the new position to also focus on LGBT issues outside of the company. Shattuck agreed, and subsequently Constellation became a sponsor of the Human Rights Campaign, where Berardesco is also a member of the business council.
Early in his career, prior to going in-house, Berardesco represented various Constellation businesses when the company was still a subsidiary of Baltimore Gas & Electric, before deregulation. “I became known as the guy they could throw into difficult situations involving partners, and [who] could figure a way out of it,” Berardesco recalls. “So, I did some work for them in the ’90s, and then stopped when I became the general counsel of another company, and didn’t think a lot about energy, other than paying my electric bill for a quite a while.”
Rather coincidentally, Berardesco reconnected with Constellation while he was working as general counsel in Wilmington, Del. He received a phone call from a partner at his former firm letting him know that a large company in Baltimore was looking for a good M&A lawyer.
“After eight years, I now call myself an energy lawyer,” concedes Berardesco, who commutes to Baltimore from his home in Washington, D.C., where he lives with his longtime partner. “But the company is comprised of both people who’ve been in the business for a very long time, and others, like me, from a broader corporate background. I’ve found that the integration is very helpful in industry, particularly an industry like energy, that is affected by so many regulations.”
Berardesco’s childhood on the New Jersey shore was full of family and books. “We weren’t poor exactly, but we definitely didn’t have a lot of money,” he recalls. “Every Christmas my parents wrapped up second-hand paperback books and put them under the tree for us kids. The little bookshelf in my bedroom was full of history books—my favorite. During the summer, they’d take us to see historical sights and if we were passing a college, we’d stop and check out the campus. That’s how I first discovered Duke, my college alma mater.”
“For me to grow up and attend law school [George Washington University Law School] and go on to be the general counsel of a large company is an enormous source of pride for my parents,” Berardesco comments. “Being a lawyer is something I’ve always wanted to do ever since my uncle told me it was the right profession for a chatty kid like me.”
While still an associate in private practice, Berardesco asked his financial adviser to ensure that he would have the option to retire at 55. As that age draws ever nearer, Berardesco shows no interest in backing off from his job: “I wouldn’t want my boss to hear me say this but I have the best job in the country,” he says happily, “I work on great projects with a team of incredibly good lawyers surrounding a topic that everyone cares about — energy. To be perfectly honest, I’m having too much fun to retire.” DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the September/October 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®