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Two members of the Charles County board of commissioners used their titles and government letterhead to support a friend who killed a motorcyclist while driving drunk. The action was denounced by the prosecutor, who said it could appear that commissioners were using their position to influence the outcome, although he did not believe that was their intention.
Charles County State’s Attorney Tony Covington criticized commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) for using county letterhead to ask Charles County Circuit Court Judge Robert C. Nalley to show “mercy in determining [the] future” of Stephanie Orbits of Pomfret. In August 2011, Orbits failed to yield right of way while driving in White Plains and hit a motorcycle, killing its rider, according to police. Commissioner Bobby Rucci (D) also wrote a letter in support of Orbits, but did not mention sentencing. In an interview, Rucci said he had used county letterhead too, but that it had been stripped off of copies before the letter landed in the case file. He did not know how.
Both commissioners said they did nothing wrong in advocating for Orbits as county officials.
In her June 4 letter, Kelly noted the “overwhelming loss experienced by the victim’s family,” but called Orbits “a kind and caring woman who is engaged with her family and friends.” Kelly also wrote that “Ms. Orbits has faced the issues that led to this accident and I feel certain that she will, with the help of her faith, family and friends, not falter if given a chance to be of service in a meaningful way to help others avoid similar heartbreak and loss.”
Kelly and Orbits met during a “trip with mutual friends,” and Kelly attended the ceremony when Orbits joined the Roman Catholic Church the day before Easter this year, according to the letter.
Charles County State’s Attorney Tony Covington (D) said at Orbits’ sentencing hearing Wednesday that Kelly’s action was “completely inappropriate,” especially because commissioners set the court’s and his own office’s budgets. He said he had assured the victim’s family that she had not affected the proceedings, and brought it up in court to assure the public as well.
In court, Covington had not known that Rucci had also written a letter as a commissioner, but “if he did that, then all the comments I’m making about Commissioner Kelly, I would say the same thing [about Rucci],” the prosecutor said in an interview.
He stressed that he did not think they were trying to use their power improperly.
“I’m just saying, quite frankly, they should have known better, especially in a case, this case, where you have a father of three who had two severely disabled children who are now left to get through this life without him and his assistance. It’s a really, really bad case and you shouldn’t have that type of information coming from the commissioners’ office, on commissioners’ letterhead, saying, ‘Give the girl a break.’ It’s not appropriate,” Covington said.
Judge Nalley weighed in from the bench to say, “I have no reason to think anything inappropriate was intended.” He could not immediately be reached for further comment.
In an interview, Kelly said she stood by her letter and questioned whether Covington’s disapproval might be politically motivated, calling it an attempt to repress her “freedom of speech.” Kelly routinely writes recommendations for jobs and scholarships as board president, as well as letters on political issues, and considered this a similar form of communication on behalf of “someone in need,” she said.
“I would dare say that I write letters all the time. Let me put it this way: It’s very common for me to take positions, write letters, endorse issues, writing against an issue. That’s common, and it is who I am and I’ve earned the right,” Kelly said. “I earned that office and if anyone would feel that there are people, citizens, that need someone else to advocate for them or speak up for them, and I do that frequently and I’m happy to help. If I can use the office, that I worked very hard to get into, to help others, then I’m going to do that.”
Covington blasted Kelly for, he said, making a professional issue personal.
“Of course she would because that’s how she thinks. I’m doing my job. That comment actually proves the mentality, the arrogance that would allow her to write that letter in the first place. She doesn’t understand, obviously, that that appearance of an official letter coming in to a criminal case like that, as if she is speaking on behalf of all Charles County, is inappropriate,” Covington said. “She makes a mistake, and I’m choosing words very carefully here, saying it very slowly so you can get it right: Madam Commissioner has made a mistake. And when that mistake is brought to her attention, her first response is to personally criticize and attack the person bringing that mistake to her attention. She made a mistake. She should just say, ‘I made a mistake. I’m sorry.’”
Rucci had no regrets, saying it was appropriate for an official to stand up for a worthy county resident.
“It’s a tragic thing to happen for both sides,” he said of the collision. “We do that [advocate] every day for people in the county about what type of person they are. That’s what we’re there for, to help people in the county. We’re not supporting what happened in the county.”
Staff writer Jeff Newman contributed to this report.