Judge rules against county, com­mis­sion­ers told to re­lease re­im­burse­ment doc­u­ments

Of­fi­cials had sought to seal records re­lated to pay­ment of le­gal fees for for­mer com­mis­sioner, ad­min­is­tra­tor

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By PAUL LAGASSE pla­gasse@somd­news.com

The Charles County Cir­cuit Court on Thurs­day or­dered the Charles County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers to re­lease doc­u­ments re­lated to its au­tho­riza­tion to re­im­burse for­mer Com­mis­sion­ers’ Pres­i­dent Candice Quinn Kelly and for­mer County Ad­min­is­tra­tor Re­becca Brid­gett for le­gal fees. The rul­ing came four months af­ter an ar­ti­cle in the Mary­land In­de­pen­dent re­vealed that the pa­per had ob­tained con­fi­den­tial doc­u­ments in­di­cat­ing that the com­mis­sion­ers had is­sued checks to Kelly and Brid­gett in De­cem­ber 2015 and Fe­bru­ary 2016, re­spec­tively.

The re­im­burse­ments had been re­quested fol­low­ing a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Kelly’s at­tempts to ob­tain the W-2 tax forms of for­mer Com­mis­sion­ers’ Vice Pres­i­dent Reuben B. Collins II in De­cem­ber 2011. Ac­cord­ing to grand jury tes­ti­mony, Brid­gett had at­tempted to en­force Kelly’s re­quest to ob­tain the in­for­ma­tion from the county pay­roll of­fice. Un­der

fed­eral law, tax in­for­ma­tion is con­sid­ered pri­vate and may not be dis­closed with­out con­sent. Kelly was not charged with any wrong­do­ing in the mat­ter.

Fol­low­ing the ar­ti­cle’s pub­li­ca­tion, Colin A. Byrd of Green­belt and Paula L.

Martino of Tow­son filed sep­a­rate re­quests for records re­lated to the pay­ments un­der the Mary­land Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act. On April 21, the Of­fice of the County At­tor­ney pe­ti­tioned the court to deny the re­quests and re­quire Byrd and Martino to turn over all cop-

ies of the con­fi­den­tial doc­u­ment. El­iz­a­beth D. Theobalds, act­ing county at­tor­ney, as­serted that the re­lease of the records would “sub­stan­tially in­jure the pub­lic in­ter­est” and ar­gued that they were pro­tected from dis­clo­sure un­der the Mary­land Open Meet­ings Act.

“The pro­pri­ety of th­ese pay­ments is the sub­ject of great pub­lic con­tro­versy and the ra­tio­nale be­hind this de­ci­sion [to re­im­burse Kelly and Brid­gett] is crit­i­cal to the pub­lic de­bate over th­ese ex­pen­di­tures of pub­lic funds by the com­mis­sion­ers,”

ar­gued Gre­gory M. Kline, Martino’s at­tor­ney, in a pe­ti­tion to the court. Kline fur­ther ar­gued that with­hold­ing the doc­u­ments pre­vents ac­count­abil­ity and serves only to “shield the com­mis­sion­ers from the proper pub­lic scru­tiny re­quired of elected of­fi­cials vested with a pub­lic trust over tax­payer funds.”

“There ex­ist var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal is­sues sur­round­ing this case, and var­i­ous elected of­fi­cials and gov­ern­men­tal in­sti­tu­tions have po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests in pre­vent­ing the dis­clo­sure of the in­for­ma­tion,” Kline wrote.

On Thurs­day, Judge James P. Salmon, a re­tired Mary­land Court of

Spe­cial Ap­peals judge, ruled that the county com­mis­sion­ers should re­lease four sets of doc­u­ments to Byrd and Martino: the con­tracts to pay le­gal fees on be­half of Kelly and Brid­gett, the le­gal bills submitted on be­half of Kelly and Brid­gett, the min­utes of the com­mis­sion­ers’ meet­ing in which the pay­ments were ap­proved, and copies of the recorded vote that was taken to ap­prove the pay­ments.

“This is not about Com­mis­sioner Kelly,” Mar tino said in an in­ter­view fol­low­ing the rul­ing. “This is about the pub­lic’s right to know how their com­mis­sion­ers are spend­ing tax­payer money.”

“What I cer­tainly didn’t

ex­pect was that the county would de­cide to take the un­usual ac­tion of su­ing me,” added Martino. Al­though Martino and Byrd were co-de­fen­dants in the suit, Martino said that she and Byrd had filed their re­quests in­de­pen­dently of each other and have never met. “It was just a pure co­in­ci­dence,” she said.

Martino is a for­mer Charles County Gov­ern­ment em­ployee and resided in Charles County for many years, she said, but moved away a cou­ple of years ago. She has per­formed work as a con­sul­tant with lo­cal govern­ments, in­clud­ing Charles County, and oth­ers around the state and coun­try.

“I have an in­ter­est in the way county govern­ments work and serve

the cit­i­zens, and again I do feel very, very strongly that they need to pub­licly ac­count for how they spend tax­payer money,” Martino said. “And it ap­peared that [this] looked like an is­sue that should have been dis­closed. I filed the PIA, the county re­sponded by re­fus­ing my re­quest and by su­ing me. But as it turns out, the judge agreed the ar­gu­ments my lawyer made on my be­half. They do seem to have a le­gal obli­ga­tion to dis­close this in­for­ma­tion un­der the law.”

In dis­cussing the rul­ing, Gre­gory M. Kline, Martino’s at­tor­ney, ex­plained that by fil­ing the pe­ti­tion against Martino and Byrd, “the county waived the right to with­hold the doc­u­ments un­der the MPIA ex­cep­tions. All the court had to de­cide then was whether the re­lease of the doc­u­ments would be harm­ful to the pub­lic in­ter­est.”

When reached for com­ment, Com­mis­sion­ers’ Pres­i­dent Peter F. Mur­phy (D) said, “We are go­ing to look at all of our op­tions, but un­til then it would be pre­ma­ture to make a com­ment.”

The of­fices of the county at­tor­ney did not re­turn a call for com­ment.

Kline said that he ex­pects to re­ceive the doc­u­ments “at any time.”

“I think the more peo­ple who have ac­cess to the in­for­ma­tion, the bet­ter in­formed the tax­pay­ers and res­i­dents of Charles County will be about de­ci­sions be­ing made with their tax money,” Martino said.

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