The president of the Harford County Council rejected a request to remove one of his colleagues on the same night the panel put off a vote on a request for county funds to pay for a criminal defense attorney for three county employees.
Council President Patrick Vincenti (R), in a letter to Harford County Executive Robert Cassilly (R), said the council has no authority to remove Councilman Aaron Penman (R).
“Unlike the authority of the United States Congress and the Maryland Legislature, the Express Powers Act provides ‘no commitment rendering the County Council the sole arbiter of its members’ qualifications,'” Vincenti wrote in his response.
Cassilly, in a letter last week, said Penman was no longer eligible to serve because he had been rehired by the Harford County Sheriff in violation of the County Charter. In the letter, Cassilly requested the council remove Penman from his office.
Vincenti, in a response to Cassilly that was also released to reporters, did not make a determination on Penman’s eligibility to serve. Instead, he suggested Cassilly’s only option is to seek a court order.
“In this matter, the County Council does not have the authority to file a suit of this nature,” Vincenti writes. “However, as you are aware, the Executive Branch does have this authority which you previously exercised in Harford v. Bennett.”
In that case, Cassilly attempted to block Harford County Councilmember Jacob Bennett (D) from serving because the first-year official was employed as a teacher by Harford County Public Schools.
Cassilly locked Bennett out of his office and refused to pay him. A Harford County Circuit Court Judge ruled in favor of Cassilly. That ruling was short-lived. The Supreme Court of Maryland earlier this year ordered the Circuit Court Judge to reverse his earlier decision and fully seat Bennett.
Penman, who retired last October after 17 years with the Harford County Sheriff’s office, said the ruling in Harford v. Bennett cleared the way for him to be rehired.
Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler (R) said legal opinions, including one from an assistant attorney general assigned to his department, agreed. Penman was rehired last month.
Cassilly’s push to remove Penman is the latest wrinkle in a conflict involving the two Republicans that has become the subject of an ongoing investigation that includes a grand jury and the Office of the State Prosecutor.
On Tuesday, Cassilly’s director of Human Resources, Tiffany S. Stephens, appeared for about 70 minutes in a Bel Air courtroom where the Harford County Grand Jury was meeting, with lawyers from the Office of the State Prosecutor in attendance.
Also appearing before the grand jury was County Auditor Chrystal L. Brooks, who works for the council.
Stephens was named in a grand jury subpoena that sought records related to an executive branch search of Penman’s county email and phone records.
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 Gahler and members of his staff, former County Executive Barry Glassman (R) and a private attorney. Penman accused Cassilly of violating Maryland’s wiretapping laws in conducting the search; the county executive has said it was justified and within the bounds of Maryland’s Public Information Act laws.
The subpoena obtained by Maryland Matters does not identify specific Harford County officials as the target of the investigation.
The emails sought by the grand jury include those sent by, on behalf of, or received by Cassilly, Stephens, Administrative Director Robert McCord, Office of Information and Communication Technology Director Nicholas L. Kuba, and systems engineer Brian Sill.
On Tuesday, Vincenti announced that the council would delay a decision on a request from Cassilly to approve up to $15,000 to pay for criminal legal representation for three employees.
Vincenti noted that County Attorney Jefferson Blomquist had yet to meet with all seven council members. He said the council would give Blomquist “a couple of days to meet with everybody that you need to talk to, and then we’ll reconsider this.”
Blomquist, in an email last week, asked the council to approve the expenditure. The request to the council did not name the employees to be represented.
Blomquist, speaking to the council Tuesday, identified the employees by their job titles: the director of the Department of Human Resources, and the director of the Office of Information Technology and Communication, and an employee of the Office of Information Technology and Communication.
The two director positions are held by Stephens and Kuba respectively. The third employee is believed to be Sill.
“These weren’t acts that were committed on a lark night while they were off duty,” said Blomquist. “These acts that were committed while they were performing their official functions and duties. And so, the county…wants to provide the individual employees with the best legal counsel they can have under those circumstances.”
Blomquist then told Vincenti he did not anticipate other employees would need similar representation. He then guaranteed three other employees would not be provided attorneys at county expense.
“I can guarantee the council that no representation will be provided for the county attorney, no representation will be provided to the director of administration and no representation will be provided to the county executive,” said Blomquist.
Blomquist said an outside attorney is needed because “the Department of Law has a conflict of interest that precludes the Department of Law from providing legal representation to these three employees.”
Blomquist did not elaborate.
Stephens was accompanied to court Tuesday by Carl Schlaich, a Bel Air criminal defense attorney.
Blomquist told the council that Schlaich agreed to not charge Stephens “pending a determination by the Council as to whether they will approve funding for outside legal counsel in this matter.”
It is not clear if all three employees will be represented by the same attorney.
Penman opposed the request for county money.
“I’m embarrassed for our county and frankly shocked that the administration would commit the alleged criminal acts against the council and then come before the council and request tax dollars for criminal defense,” Penman said to Blomquist.
Penman’s comments touched off a terse exchange with Blomquist in which the county attorney denied that the grand jury was a criminal investigation.
The comments were a reversal from statements made in writing by Blomquist in letters denying records requests made by Maryland Matters.
“I do know that there is an investigation being conducted by the state prosecutor’s office,” Blomquist said.
“Grand jury investigations are not criminal,” he said. “The law is very clear the grand jury investigations are not criminal. Grand Jury investigations come before any criminal proceeding. There has been no finding of probable cause and there has been no establishment of probable cause of wrongdoing on any individuals.”