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Government & Politics

State panel settles multi-million dollar wage theft case, wrongful conviction claim

Gov. Wes Moore chairs the Board of Public Works. The panel including Treasurer Dereck Davis and Comptroller Brooke Lierman unanimously approved a $13 million wage theft settlement for nearly 3,900 current and former state employees as well as a nearly $3 million settlement for John Huffington, who was wrongfully convicted of a double murder and served nearly 32 years in prison. Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

Almost 3,900 current and former employees of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services will be paid more than $13 million to resolve what union officials called a wage theft scheme.

The settlement approved Wednesday by the three-member Board of Public Works, dates back to claims over the last three years and includes workers at all state prisons.

“While the Department of Labor’s investigation is still ongoing, the one thing we know for certain is that the federal government found that thousands of dedicated, hardworking employees were underpaid for hours of work they performed at the department,” said Gov. Wes Moore (D). “We not only owe them this now overdue back pay, frankly we owe them an apology.”

The agency was one of two known to be under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division for under-paying employees.

The agency determined that the state engaged in wage theft.

Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3 said the department changed start and stop times of employees. The changes resulted in employees not being paid overtime for the hours they worked.

Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, the state’s largest employee union. Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

“It was overwhelming, it was everywhere,” said Moran, whose union represents the correctional system employees and is the largest state employees union in Maryland.

Moran called the settlement “the second largest wage theft settlement for correctional officers in United States history.”

The settlement is an extension of an initial investigation of the agency covering 2018-2020 involving workers at the Jessup Correctional Institute.

Employees successfully claimed the department failed to pay them for time worked over their shifts.

In February 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor found the same agency violated the Fair Labor Standards Act for underpaying employees of the Jessup Correctional Institute.

The Department of Labor ordered the state to pay out more than $468,000 to settle the complaints.

That initial case at Jessup expanded to include the Department of Juvenile Services and the state corrections agency. In that complaint, the Department of Labor was asked to look at rounding errors for both start and end times.

The department suffers from a high vacancy rate. Former Gov. Larry Hogan and the union had a contentious relationship during the Republican’s eight years in office.

“Let me be clear: We do not know the depth of this theft of our members’ wages,” said Moran. “This scheme was cooked up in DPSCS and covered up by the Hogan administration and it went on for years. ”

Despite the settlement, some unresolved issues remain, Moran said.

“People need to be held accountable because they stole employees’ money,” said Moran. “They thought people working for free was acceptable. It is not acceptable ever in any situation.”

Former death row inmate awarded $2.9 million for wrongful incarceration

The Board of Public Works also unanimously approved a nearly $2.9 million payment to John Huffington for serving more than three decades of a prison sentence for a crime he did not commit.

John Huffington (center) was awarded nearly $3 million under the Walter Lomax Act for 32 years of wrongful incarceration. Huffington was convicted of a 1981 double murder. He was later exonerated and the Harford County state’s attorney who prosecuted him was disbarred. Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

“It would have been understandable to grow angry at the criminal justice system or at society as a whole who frankly failed him,” said Moore. “He was literally sentenced to die for crimes he never committed. But when he was released in 2013, that was not the route Mr. Huffington took.”

Moore apologized to Huffington for the time spent in prison.

“Mr. Huffington, John, I cannot say how inspired I am by you,”  Moore said. “How grateful I am for you. How sorry I am for what you had to go through but how amazed I am by the power that you had to turn this experience into something that we as a state should and will learn from.”

Since his release, Huffington has worked as a logistics manager at Second Chance in Baltimore, which offers job training to ex-offenders and others. He authored a book and is currently the vice president of Baltimore-based Kinetic Capital Community Foundation as well as the corporate social responsibility director for Holdings Management Company Inc.

The payments to Huffington are based on a formula created by the passage of The Walter Lomax Act. The 2021 law was named for a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent nearly four decades in prison.

Under the act, Huffington receives $91,431 annually for each of the almost 32 years he was wrongfully incarcerated. Huffington spent 10 of those years on Maryland’s death row.

He will receive an initial payment of $91,431 by Aug. 1. Following that, the state will pay him $468,017.75 every two months through July 31, 2024.

Huffington was convicted by a Caroline County jury in 1981 of two counts of first-degree murder involving Diane Becker and Joseph Hudson Jr. in Harford County.

Huffington appealed and was granted a new trial. He was subsequently convicted again of both murders.

In 2013, he was released after a Frederick County Circuit Court issued a writ of actual innocence. The convictions were vacated. Huffington was ordered to stand trial again.

Four years later, at that new trial, Huffington entered an Alford Plea in which he maintained his innocence but accepted a conviction. He was sentenced to time served and probation through 2017.

But in 2021, Maryland’s highest court disbarred former Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly, who prosecuted Huffington.

In its decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals — now called the Supreme Court of Maryland — found that Cassilly “intentionally failed to disclose exculpatory evidence as a prosecutor for over a decade” in the Huffington case.

“Here, in his role as State’s Attorney for Harford County, Cassilly, among other misconduct, knowingly made false statements of fact to the circuit court on multiple occasions, engaged in intentional dishonesty, concealed from Huffington and his counsel the Robertson Report, and sought to destroy the evidence that was the subject of the report,” the court wrote in its 2021 decision. “With this misconduct, Cassilly engaged in misconduct that the public would not expect from a member of the legal profession, especially the State’s Attorney of a jurisdiction, and that would negatively impact the perception of the legal profession of a reasonable member of the public.”

Hogan, before leaving office in January, issued a full pardon saying Huffington’s conviction had been shown conclusively to have been in error.

In May, the same panel approved a payment of more than $800,000 to David Veney. The Wicomico County man was convicted of a 1996 sexual assault and later exonerated.

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State panel settles multi-million dollar wage theft case, wrongful conviction claim