Harford County’s top Republican is seeking $15,000 in county money to pay for attorneys to represent three senior county employees.
County Executive Robert Cassilly is asking for the money for the three unnamed officials at the same time he is asking the council to unseat one of their own.
Tensions between Councilmember Aaron Penman, a fellow Republican, and Cassilly escalated during the summer after Penman accused the freshman executive of spying on the legislative branch and a former county executive. Penman called for Cassilly to take a leave of absence and Cassilly is now urging the council to remove Penman.
“This subject of the request involves a matter pursuant to which I am under court orders to not publicly discuss,” Harford County Attorney Jefferson Blomquist wrote in a brief email to the Harford County Council that was obtained by Maryland Matters.
Cassilly and his administration are subject to an ongoing criminal investigation by the Office of the State Prosecutor.
A grand jury subpoena obtained by Maryland Matters does not identify specific Harford County officials as the target of the investigation. The document does request specific emails sent between May 15 and Aug. 1. The emails sought include those sent 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. All requested emails pertain to Penman’s county email or phone records.
Bloomquist, in his email to the council, wrote that the Harford County Charter allows for the hiring of outside attorneys in certain circumstances.
“The County Executive may, with the approval of the Council, employ special legal counsel to work on problems of an extraordinary nature when the work to be done is of such character or magnitude as to require services in addition to those regularly provided by the Department of Law,” according to the section of the Harford County Charter cited in Blomquist’s email.
The charter is silent on whether this section applies to civil and criminal matters.
Blomquist wrote that the cost of the unnamed legal counsel “is not expected to exceed $15,000.” The county attorney offered to meet with members of the council “individually or in small groups” prior to a council meeting on Tuesday night.
Neither Cassilly nor Harford County Council President Patrick Vincenti responded to requests for comment.
Cassilly asks council to remove Penman
The funding request comes at the same time Cassilly is asking the council to remove Penman from the seat he has held since December.
Cassilly, in his letter to all seven council members including Penman, wrote that Penman’s “dual employment as a Harford County Council member and a deputy sheriff violates” the county charter. That charter “prohibits council members from serving as employees of the state or county governments,” the executive wrote.
The letter is the latest in a series of rows involving Penman, the council, and Harford County State’s Attorney Alison Healey.
Penman drew the ire of Cassilly this spring when he raised questions about a budget transfer initiated by Cassilly without council approval. Penman’s complaint triggered a search by the executive branch of emails including Penman’s council email, as well as other Harford County officials including Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler (R) and members of his staff, former County Executive Barry Glassman (R) and a private attorney.
That search is now the subject of an apparent investigation by the Office of the State Prosecutor. It also has councils in other charter counties looking at options to secure their emails from their county servers.
Vincenti, the Harford council president, said last week the council continues to look for alternatives.
Late last month, Healey threatened to seek a court order to force Cassilly to grant her access to the email account of a senior official in her office who is on emergency leave. Cassilly initially refused citing Healey’s referral of the email case to the Office of the State Prosecutor.
The two Republicans reached partial agreement when Cassilly said he would allow incoming emails to be forwarded. The deal still prohibits access to older emails Healey said she needs. She called the arrangement a temporary solution and reserved the right to seek a court order if needed.
Healey added that she will push for county funding to move her office off the county server and estimated the cost to be in the “millions of dollars.”
Penman, a 17-year veteran of the sheriff’s department, retired from the agency last October. At the time, he gave up five years of deferred retirement payments and is ineligible to make additional contributions to his department pension, which he said he now collects.
Last month he applied for reinstatement following an August opinion issued by the Supreme Court of Maryland involving Cassilly and Councilmember Jacob Bennett (D).
In a statement announcing Penman’s rehire, Gahler said the opinion was reviewed by both his office and an assistant attorney general assigned to the Office of the Sheriff and found “no legal impediment to the rehiring.”
Penman, in an interview said he believes the County Charter limits the removal of a council member to failure to perform the duties of office or an absence of at least six months.
“The council has no authority to remove me from office,” he said. “So, the next step, logically, would be if he [Cassilly] was to go down the same path he did with Jacob Bennett and file a motion with the court.”
Earlier this year, Cassilly initially refused to recognize Bennett’s election to the council, citing a County Charter provision barring a council member from serving while also holding a state or local government position. Bennett, in his first year in office, is a Harford County middle school science teacher.
Cassilly ordered the locks on Bennett’s office be changed, refused to pay him or grant access to the county email or phone system.
The Supreme Court of Maryland in March ruled Bennett could hold both his day job and a seat on the council.
Cassilly’s letter to the council does not lay out possible repercussions if Penman is not removed.
Penman, speaking Monday, said he’s taking a wait-and-see approach.
“We’ll know once Friday hits and we see if I get a paycheck or not,” said Penman.