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As grand jury investigates, Harford County denies public records request for emails

A view of the Harford County Circuit Courthouse in Bel Air. Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

A Harford County grand jury sought records as part of a criminal investigation of unnamed county officials who may have been involved in alleged wiretapping or hacking into the emails of other county officials.

Talk of a grand jury investigation swirled in recent weeks after the Office of the State Prosecutor stepped in to review complaints that Harford County Executive Robert Cassilly (R) improperly searched the emails of a freshman county council member, Harford County Sheriff Jeff Gahler (R) and others. The grand jury’s investigation was confirmed by the inadvertent release of a subpoena in response to a Public Information Act request filed by Maryland Matters. Officials denied the release of other records requested by Maryland Matters, including copies of the emails at issue.

A spokesperson for Cassilly declined to comment on the subpoena and investigation.

The Office of the State Prosecutor does not confirm nor deny the existence of investigations. Grand jury activities are secret by law.

The document gives rare insight into an ongoing intraparty squabble between Cassilly and other Republican county officials.

The subpoena, issued Aug. 14, orders Harford County Attorney Jefferson Blomquist to appear before the grand jury in Bel Air on Aug. 29. According to the document, Blomquist could avoid appearing by producing a slew of documents and certification that the documents were complete and exact copies of the original.

And while the subpoena didn’t specifically identify any Harford County officials that are the target of the investigation, it did make specific requests for emails sent between May 15 and and Aug. 1 by, on behalf of, or received by Cassilly, county Human Resources Director Tiffany S. Stephens, Administrative Director Robert McCord, Office of Information and Communication Technology Director Nicholas L. Kuba, and systems engineer Brian Sill that pertain to email or phone records of Harford County Councilmember Aaron Penman (R).

The subpoena also demanded “any and all communications” between Stephens and McCord, Kuba, Sill and Stephen Wood, another systems engineer.

The grand jury also sought all emails sent or received by Cassilly for the same time period.

Additional requests include logs of emails deleted for the officials named as well as telephone records and county policies related to use of county issued telephones, cell phones and electronic devices.

Penman, in July, called on Cassilly and other top aides to take a leave of absence after accusing the first-year executive of spying on the legislative branch and others.

Penman accused Cassilly of monitoring emails and phone calls between himself, Gahler, former County Executive Barry Glassman (R), Harford County land use attorney Joseph Snee, and Melissa Lambert, a former Harford County attorney who now works for Gahler. The incident was initially referred to the Harford County State’s Attorney for investigation, according to a sheriff’s department spokesperson.

On June 30, as part of that initial investigation, two Harford County Sheriff’s deputies were sent to the homes of Stephens and Wood. Deputies were also sent to Kuba’s Annapolis home and boat dock. All three were “interrogated…about their conduct in  retrieving electronic records stored on County servers,” according to Blomquist, in a Sept. 12 letter denying some documents requested by Maryland Matters.

Cassilly said in August that the emails were searched after Penman accused the executive of violating the county’s charter by not seeking council approval before a $7 million funds transfer.

Cassilly, through a spokesperson, initially defended the search as an attempt to substantiate Penman’s allegations.

In the statement, the spokesperson also said “the County has the right at any time to inspect all electronically stored information on such technology devices.”

The spokesperson said Cassilly and his staff were legally permitted to search the emails including those of Penman, who serves in a separate branch of government, because the email system is operated and maintained by the executive branch. The spokesperson said Penman and others signed forms acknowledging the county’s oversight and said it applied to Penman because he is a county employee.

The Office of the State Prosecutor took over the investigation sometime after it was assigned to Harford County State’s Attorney Allison Healey.

In recent weeks, that investigation appears to have moved to a grand jury. The unwitting release of the subpoena as part of a document request by Maryland Matters confirms the change.

Blomquist, in a Sept. 12 letter to Maryland Matters, denied a Public Information Act request for copies of county emails, citing an investigatory exemption in the state public records law.

“The Office of the State Prosecutor is leading a criminal investigation against unnamed County officials/employees for criminal wiretapping/hacking into electronically stored records relative to the records requested pursuant to the foregoing records requests, which records are electronically stored on County computer servers,” Blomquist wrote.

“The records responsive to the foregoing requests are stored electronically on Harford County computer servers. Until the County receives clarification from a final order of a court of law, from State Prosecutor Howard, III or from State’s Attorney Healey as to whether retrieval of emails and other electronically stored records from County servers constitutes criminal conduct, the County is unable to provide responsive records to the foregoing requests.

“Furthermore, if retrieval of electronic records from County servers is not criminal, some of your requests are nonsensical,” he wrote.

But the county did release a tranche of documents including blank copies of consent forms and copies of various county policies. One of those documents was the subpoena, which appears to still be active.

The email snooping incident, described by some as “Nixonian,” has caused councils in other charter counties to consider separating their email systems from those operated by the executive branch.


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As grand jury investigates, Harford County denies public records request for emails