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Charles County commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly instructed a county employee to retrieve board Vice President Reuben B. Collins II’s tax forms in December 2011, county employees testified before a local grand jury the following April.

The testimony also shows that then-County Administrator Rebecca Bridgett reinforced Kelly’s directive when the employee initially was rebuffed by the county payroll office.

Transcripts of the testimony were provided by Charles County State’s Attorney Anthony B. Covington (D), per a Public Information Act request from the Maryland Independent.

Kelly kicked off the New Year by refuting at the commissioners’ Jan. 7 meeting claims made by Collins in April 2012 that Kelly had possibly committed a “criminal” act by directing an employee to seek his 2010 tax form from the county government personnel office.

A person’s tax information is considered private under federal and state law and may not be disclosed without that person’s prior consent.

“W-2 tax forms are not considered public record, and there’s a host of state and federal laws that require they remain private between employer and employee,” a spokesman with the Office of the Maryland Attorney General told the Maryland Independent in April 2012.

Testimony from three county employees given April 27, 2012, as part of an initial grand jury investigation by the Charles County State’s Attorney’s Office confirms Collins’ allegations.

Covington said he chose to disclose the documents rather than prosecute the case.

“I decided it just wasn’t of benefit to the citizens of the county to prosecute the case,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, some light is the best antiseptic there is for this one. [As] long as the facts are out there, the citizens are better off.”

Covington also provided background information detailing that his office was first contacted regarding Kelly’s alleged misconduct on April 16, 2012, by Deputy County Attorney Elizabeth Theobalds, who reported that then-Charles County Human Resources Director Stephen Brayman and Chief of Benefits Meghan Donnick, in the course of investigating a complaint of workplace bullying, had spoken to county employee Debbie Tarbox, an administrative specialist in the Department of Planning and Growth Management office. The information Covington provided does not indicate who was involved in the bullying allegation.

In her interview, Tarbox revealed that Kelly had instructed her to retrieve a copy of Collins’ W-2 form from the county payroll office, and Collins was unaware that his W-2 form had been released without his consent.

After the meeting, Brayman researched the issue and, feeling a crime might have been committed, contacted Theobalds, who in turn contacted Covington’s office, according to the documents.

Collins made his accusation publicly the next day, April 17, 2012, during the commissioners’ regular weekly meeting.

Covington launched “a very brief inquiry, just enough to justify that the allegations were credible and that there was sufficient evidence to look into the matter,” he said.

Tarbox, county payroll manager Deborah Roberts and Deputy County Administrator Deborah Hall, who was then the director of fiscal and administrative services, testified before the grand jury April 27, 2012.

Their testimony tells the same story — that Dec. 29, 2011, Kelly, with Bridgett present, directed Tarbox, who at the time was an executive administrator in the commissioners’ office, to get Collins’ 2010 W-2 forms from the payroll office.

Tarbox said she suspected Kelly’s request was related to her disapproval of the take-home county vehicles driven by Collins and Commissioner Debra M. Davis (D).

“She did not like that two of the commissioners had county vehicles. That bothered her,” Tarbox said, according to transcripts provided by Covington to satisfy the Public Information Act request. “She had, during that same week, I believe, asked me if I had any information regarding any other — any commissioners that had asked for a waiver to have an additional rider in their vehicle, and I had no knowledge of that, but she had mentioned several times over several months that she was not happy about other commissioners having vehicles.”

Tarbox relayed Kelly’s request to Roberts, who testified that she was uncomfortable with providing a copy of Collins’ W-2 form, due to privacy concerns.

Roberts called Hall, her boss, and informed her of the request. Hall agreed that the W-2 should not be released, according to the testimony.

By this point Kelly had left her office for the day, so Tarbox returned to Bridgett and informed her that the payroll office was not comfortable with turning over the tax forms.

“She instructed me to go back down there and just tell them to get it done, to find a way to remove the Social Security number,” Tarbox told the grand jury. “I felt uncomfortable. To be honest, I thought that it seemed an unethical thing to ask, but I didn’t know that it was beyond anything other than questionably unethical.”

Tarbox returned to the payroll office, and Roberts again called Hall. Still uncomfortable with the request, Roberts and Hall nonetheless agreed to give Tarbox a copy of Collins’ W-2 but not before blacking out his Social Security number.

Tarbox turned the copied W-2 over to Bridgett. Tarbox said when Kelly asked her for the W-2 on Jan. 3, 2012, she informed Kelly that the form had been given to Bridgett.

The next day, Tarbox was transferred to her current position in the PGM department.

“It was a voluntary decision based on several issues, but partly because I felt uncomfortable about — I worked directly for Commissioner Kelly, and I didn’t feel very comfortable,” she told the grand jury.

A juror asked Tarbox why Kelly did not also ask for Davis’ tax forms. Tarbox noted that Davis, elected in 2010 and sworn in the following January, did not drive a county car in 2010 or have a 2010 W-2 on file with the county.

Tarbox stood by her testimony when reached by phone. Roberts and Hall both declined comment.

Asked for comment this week, Kelly provided a written statement indicating that grand jury transcripts may only be released under certain circumstances by Maryland law.

“To the best of my knowledge, the Grand Jury transcripts in your possession were not handled in accordance with Maryland Rule 4-642. Therefore, I have no comment,” she wrote.

Covington said that grand jury testimony remains sealed until released by a court order. Upon receiving the public information request, Covington petitioned the court to release the testimony, and his request was granted, he said.

Bridgett did not respond to multiple phone messages seeking comment.

Seeking to establish whether Kelly knew she did not have a right to Collins’ tax information, Covington brought former Deputy County Attorney Sue Greer and Hughesville resident Pauleen Brewer before the grand jury May 25, 2012.

Both testified that Brewer — president of the Hughesville Civic and Business Alliance, and Kelly’s 2010 campaign manager — filed a Public Information Act request with the county in May 2010 requesting “copies of W-2 forms or a summary of the total wages and salaries paid to” then-Commissioners Edith J. Patterson, Gary V. Hodge, F. Wayne Cooper and Collins, as well as copies of any forms displaying the mileage each of the commissioners reported on their county-issued vehicles between 2008 and 2010.

The commissioners drew fire in 2008 for purchasing SUVs for them to drive, and the vehicles became an intense campaign issue in the run-up to the 2010 election.

“It was memorable because they had done furloughs and hiring freezes, and then a lot of citizens, including myself, [were] upset that they spent $100,000 on new SUVs,” Brewer told the grand jury.

Greer said she determined the Internal Revenue Code and Maryland tax law prohibited disclosure of W-2 forms and other tax information. She wrote Brewer a letter denying the request for W-2s on June 29, 2010.

Brewer testified that she discussed the denial with Kelly, who at the time was running for commissioners’ president.

Brewer responded to a phone message seeking comment with an emailed statement.

“When I testified before the grand jury, I told the truth about my [Public Information Act] request dated May 22, 2010, regarding personal mileage documented for the commissioner-driven SUVs,” she wrote. “This request was related to Commissioners Patterson, Cooper, Hodge, and Collins, for all records in the county’s custody and control, pertaining to the SUVs. I filed the request because I suspected abuse of the use of the SUVs. I have not read the grand jury transcript, so I can not comment on its content for accuracy.”

Greer did not respond to several phone messages left at her La Plata law office seeking comment.

Following the grand jury testimony, Covington referred the case in August 2012 to the Office of the State Prosecutor, which investigates criminal offenses committed by public officials and employees.

Following its investigation, the state prosecutor’s office recommended in September 2013 that Covington not prosecute the case, he said, stressing that the decision whether to move forward remained with him.

A spokesperson at the state prosecutor’s office said the department neither confirms nor denies whether an investigation occurred, unless if the subject under investigation requests that such information be released.

In this case, granting a public information request fulfills the same goal as prosecution, “to deter people from doing this kind of conduct and acting in this kind of way,” Covington said. “I think this coming to light will help do that, so we don’t need the criminal justice system involved.”

But just because a case is not prosecuted does not mean a crime did not occur, he added.

“W-2 forms are considered tax information. They are not considered disclosable or releasable. ... To attempt to get that information is not right unless you’re entitled to it,” Covington said. “I know Commissioner Kelly has said repeatedly there was no wrongdoing. Well, I just gave you what the law is, so I think people can look at the grand jury documents and decide for themselves.”

Covington also took exception to a statement Kelly made during the Jan. 7 commissioners’ meeting questioning why “this pattern of harassment from the state’s attorney continues, and it always seems to always occur during budget time.”

“I was offended that Commissioner President Kelly would in a public setting, and this is how I took her words, that she would out of nowhere bring up the budget process in this investigation,” he said. “I took that as a shot across the bow, a not-very-veiled threat that the state’s attorney’s office would be in trouble due to this investigation, and her involvement in it, and I was offended by that and thought it was highly inappropriate.”

jnewman@somdnews.com