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Government & Politics

Councilmember, Cassilly clash over email monitoring allegations

Harford County Executive Robert Cassilly (R) chats with reporters Dec. 5, 2022, after a swearing-in ceremony at Harford Community College. Photo by William J. Ford.

A Harford County council member is calling for Harford County Executive Robert Cassilly (R) to take a leave of absence after accusing the freshman executive of spying on the legislative branch and a former county executive. The administration, in a late afternoon statement, acknowledged a search of emails but denied wrongdoing.

Republican Councilmember Aaron Penman, in a statement issued Sunday night, accused Cassilly of monitoring emails and phone calls between Penman, Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler (R), former County Executive Barry Glassman (R), a private attorney, and an unspecified number of “targeted citizens.” The incident was referred to the Harford County State’s Attorney for investigation, according to a sheriff’s department spokesperson.

“This unprecedented violation, along with a recent coordinated public attack is a clear and premeditated scheme to harass, silence and intimidate,” Penman said in a statement.

Penman, in an interview, said he was made aware of the review after being provided a copy of an email between the Harford County director of Human Resources and the county information and technology director. The email contained a request to search the council member’s emails for exchanges between five other people. Penman added that he believes the county also was checking phone records and potentially text message exchanges.

Cassilly, in a late afternoon statement, denied wrongdoing. Instead, he asserted county policy allows such reviews even when it is the legislative branch of government.

“Harford County’s Information Communication Technology Policy and County Issued Cell Phones Policy make abundantly clear that no user of electronic devices issued by the County has any expectation of privacy as to information conveyed through the use of such information technology and that the County has the right at any time to inspect all electronically stored information on such technology devices,” Cassilly said in the statement.

The timing of the email search coincides with an episode in May in which Penman, a retired 24-year veteran of the Harford County sheriff’s department, accused Cassilly of violating the county charter. Penman asked the Office of the State Prosecutor to review that incident, which involved a budget transfer that occurred before receiving the required approvals by the county council.

Penman said he is particularly concerned that emails may be monitored relating to the complaint. The council currently does not maintain its own email servers and instead used a system operated by the administration.

A statement released Monday morning by a Cassilly spokesperson attributed the accusations to politics.

“This is the second time in the past two months that Councilman Aaron Penman has made wholly unfounded, malicious, and slanderous allegations of criminal misconduct by the Cassilly Administration. Such deplorable political stunts are entirely unbecoming of the office Councilman Penman now holds. This conduct is especially egregious given the councilman’s prior law enforcement experience,” according to the Cassilly statement.

In an interview, Glassman said he believed the state’s attorney’s investigation was sparked by an email leaked to the council that showed the county human resources director had asked the head of the Office of Information Technology to search Penman’s email looking for exchanges between Gahler, Erik Robey, who is director of legislative affairs for the sheriff’s department, Glassman, and Joseph Snee, a Harford County land use attorney, among others. In an interview, Penman said Melissa Lambert, director of legal affairs for the sheriff’s office, was also part of the search.

“In all of my years as a public servant, I am not familiar with any sitting council person having their emails monitored by the executive branch,” said Glassman.

Snee was away on vacation and not immediately available for an interview Monday.

In his statement, Cassilly acknowledged the timing of the search.

“The County director of administration, upon learning of Councilman Penman’s allegations, undertook a comprehensive internal investigation to ascertain whether there was any basis to suspect misuse of county funds,” Cassilly said in the statement. “Having failed to find any evidence of improper activity, the director of administration, on May 30, 2023, directed county staff to review county servers for communications between Councilman Penman and Sheriff Gahler, Sheriff Gahler’s Information Officer and Campaign Manager, Erik Robey, and Councilman Penman’s campaign advisor, Joseph Snee, in order to exhaust a search of the county server for the most likely recipients of communications from Councilman Penman concerning his allegations of misappropriation of funds by executive branch members. The requested search disclosed no basis for the serious allegations being leveled by Councilman Penman.”

In the end, Cassilly said the search fell “well within the authority of the executive branch, when faced with allegations of wrongdoing by its own directors or employees, to conduct an examination of the electronic communications located on Harford County servers of the councilmember accusing a county employee of improper use of county funds. At no time did the Executive Branch monitor Councilman Penman’s emails or cell phone. The examination conducted was appropriately limited in order to provide the level of confidentiality necessary to support an effective investigation of an alleged misuse of county funds.”

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler (R)

In a statement, Gahler’s office confirmed receiving a complaint on July 27 “alleging violations of Maryland’s wiretap statute involving the illegal interception of electronic communications. The victims identified in the complaint are elected and government officials as well as members of the business community.”

“As with any report of a crime we have a duty to investigate, treating reports of crime without bias towards the victims or suspect’s identity,” according to the statement. “If founded, this case is particularly egregious, as Maryland boasts some of the most comprehensive and stringent wiretapping laws in the nation, emphasizing the protection of citizens’ privacy.”

“Due to the complexity of the wiretapping statutes and that some of the victims are elected officials, detectives from Harford County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigations Division were assigned to this case and will report directly to the Harford County State’s Attorney, to ensure fairness and transparency.”

A spokesperson for the agency declined to answer additional questions about the investigation or the role of the department in it given allegations that Gahler is a potential victim in the case. The spokesperson referred reporters to the Harford County state’s attorney’s office.

Penman called for the investigation of the matter.

“In the interim, Councilman Penman calls on County Executive Cassilly, and those directors who were involved to take a leave of absence,” Penman wrote.

The statement is the latest in a series of fights between Cassilly and members of his own party, including Penman.

In May, Penman accused Cassilly of misappropriation of county funds stemming from a $7 million budget transfer from the general fund to the Department of Emergency Management.

Penman said the transfer violated the Harford County Charter because it required council approval. That approval had not occurred at the time of the transfer.

The request to search emails “was committed right after the referral of the previous case to the state prosecutor’s office and could also be an attempt to spy on the communications concerning that investigation,” Penman said in his statement, calling Cassilly’s alleged action “a desperate measure.”

Also in May, Cassilly and Gahler engaged in a heated exchange over the county’s fiscal year 2024 budget.

Gahler accused Cassilly of “defunding” the department related to funding for a renovated facility in Aberdeen and a handful of victim’s services advocates.

Cassilly called the campaign mounted by the sheriff “a distraction” and said the agency was receiving increased funding, though only about one-quarter the amount sought by Gahler.

Last year, Cassilly sued to keep Councilmember Jacob Bennett (D) from taking his seat while he continued working as a school teacher in the county, arguing in part that Bennett would have a conflict in determining the county’s public schools budget. At the time, Cassilly said he would have sought similar action against Penman, if Penman had not resigned from the sheriff’s office after his election.


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Councilmember, Cassilly clash over email monitoring allegations