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This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. Feb. 19. See below for explanation.
During an impromptu town hall meeting last week, Charles County commissioners' president Candice Quinn Kelly denied any wrongdoing in directing a county employee to retrieve board Vice President Reuben B. Collins II's tax forms in December 2011, stating she was trying to ensure her colleague was reporting correctly the personal mileage of his county take-home vehicle.
Kelly (D) said she scheduled the town hall at the county government building in La Plata as a response to a Feb. 5 article in the Maryland Independent that cited the April 2012 grand jury testimony of county employees that Kelly ordered an assistant to get Collins' (D) 2010 W-2 from the county payroll office.
Transcripts of the testimony were provided by Charles County State's Attorney Anthony B. Covington (D), following a Public Information Act request from the Maryland Independent.
About 40 people — the vast majority supporters of Kelly — attended the meeting Feb. 10.
Kelly, who since has reviewed the transcripts, called the testimony “shocking and illuminating” but did not refute its content before denying that she had done anything illegal.
“All I want[ed] to know [was], are we properly capturing personal mileage and reporting it to the IRS?” she said. “I don't care who's doing what. I just want to make sure we're doing our job.”
In a follow-up phone interview, Kelly denied asking county employee Debbie Tarbox to get Collins' W-2. Instead, Kelly said, she gave Tarbox a general direction to collect information “for me to understand how the mileage was reported.“
“Deb Tarbox's statement that she was ordered to do something and that she was ordered to do something that she was uncomfortable with is completely false,” Kelly said. “The way I conducted myself was appropriate, and I was responsible for those documents.”
A person's tax information is considered private under federal and state law and may not be disclosed without that person's prior consent.
Covington told the Maryland Independent that he believed disclosing the grand jury testimony would be of greater benefit to the public than prosecuting Kelly.
The most notable testimony came from Tarbox, who told the grand jury that she had been instructed by Kelly on Dec. 29, 2011, to get the W-2. Tarbox, at the time an executive administrator in the commissioners' office, testified that she initially was rebuffed by the payroll office, but former County Administrator Rebecca Bridgett reinforced Kelly's order.
Tarbox testified that she returned to the payroll office, received a copy of Collins' W-2 with his Social Security number redacted and turned it over to Bridgett. The next day, Tarbox was transferred to an administrative position in the county's Department of Planning and Growth Management.
In addition to Tarbox, county payroll manager Deborah Roberts and Deputy County Administrator Deborah Hall, who in December 2011 was director of fiscal and administrative services, both testified before the grand jury April 27, 2012.
A month later, Covington brought former Deputy County Attorney Sue Greer and Hughesville resident Pauleen Brewer before the grand jury, seeking to establish that Kelly knew she did not have a right to Collins' tax information. Greer testified that she had denied a May 2010 public information request from Brewer — who was managing Kelly's 2010 campaign for commissioners' president — seeking copies of W-2 forms or wage summaries for then-Commissioners Edith J. Patterson, Gary V. Hodge, F. Wayne Cooper and Collins.
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 own investigation, the state prosecutor's office recommended in September 2013 that Covington not prosecute the case.
After learning of the allegations against Kelly in April 2012, Collins publicly accused her of a possible “criminal” act during a commissioners' meeting. Understanding that neither Covington nor the state prosecutor's office planned to pursue the case, Kelly publicly denied any wrongdoing Jan. 7 during the board's first 2014 meeting.
During her town hall meeting, Kelly said she had done nothing illegal but merely tried to uncover the improper use of county vehicles.
“I believe that I was the whistleblower,” she said. “I believe that I was trying to get to the bottom of what the heck's going on around here, so it's kind of ironic that here I've been kind of held hostage.”
Kelly said a county employee had told her the previous commissioners — who elected to have the county purchase SUVs for their use in 2008 — “used them like they were personal vehicles, and that for the entire first year, they did not disclose or capture any personal use … so I was very worried about that.”
During the state prosecutor investigation, Kelly spent $26,000 on legal fees “that I've still not been reimbursed for,” she said.
“What happened to my due process? We have a self-appointed judge and jury in my view with the way this was handled,” she said. “You can call it Public Information Act. You can call it whatever you like. This was wrong.”
Several county residents at the meeting objected to Covington's disclosure of the grand jury transcripts and the Maryland Independent's use of the term “released” in describing Tarbox's retrieval of Collins' W-2.
“I do not believe that the release of grand jury documents comes under the Maryland Public Information Act,” Kelly said.
“I can't believe I'm reading articles about one of our public officials 'releasing' information,” Sean Johnston of Pomfret said. “I don't know how anyone could honestly use that word, and they should be rebuked.”
“This was never about releasing anything,” Kelly answered. “My main concern is and was and always will be, did Charles County government do what it was supposed to do?”
Assistant Sheriff Maj. Joseph “Buddy” Gibson said that tax information is considered private but said an attorney general opinion said the law only prohibited disclosure of such information “to the public.”
Kelly said the petition Covington filed with the court requesting permission to release the grand jury testimony only mentioned misconduct as Kelly's alleged crime, but Gibson said there needed to be an associated charge that constituted official misconduct.
Johnston called Covington's decision to release the testimony to the press rather than prosecute “the height of cowardice.”
“What do you think of someone who holds a position like that who's convinced himself that a crime's been committed, and yet declines to prosecute?” Johnston asked. “Personally, I think that if he really feels that's the case, he should step down immediately and put someone in there who's willing to go after what he considers is a crime.”
Kelly went on to decry “major breaches of confidentiality” in the county government building in La Plata, saying she had begun taking office papers home with her to avoid additional persecution.
“I do believe there were people in this office who participated in and facilitated investigations against me,” she said.
Kelly also said Tarbox recently had been hired back at her previous position in the commissioners' office and given back pay to make up for the cut in salary she took after transferring.
Several residents questioned why Tarbox would receive back pay after transferring willingly, as Kelly stated. Eventually Tarbox's husband, Bernie, spoke up.
“I think my wife deserves to be back in the position she's in,” he said. “My wife is a reputable woman and an excellent worker.”
Bernie Tarbox also indicated his wife's transfer might not have been wholly voluntary, but he stopped short of any specific allegations.
“If you want to go there, and I don't want to,” Kelly said, adding that she “could not have been more supportive” of Debbie Tarbox.
Kelly also said she originally had hired citizens' liaison Scarlett Mower on a 60-day contract, but Mower soon signed an extension with the county and began working exclusively for Collins and Commissioners Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D).
“Ms. Mower did not want to work with me,” Kelly said.
Brewer said she filed a public information request Jan. 5 asking for the GPS records of county vehicles but had yet to hear back. State law requires that PIA requests receive a response within 30 days.
“I might be pulled into the grand jury again just for asking for the information,” Brewer said.
Residents at the meeting, which lasted two and a half hours, eventually touched on the county's ongoing comprehensive plan update and associated issues such as sprawl development, school overcrowding and the cross-county connector project.
This story was updated to correct the attribution of a quote by Charles County commissioners' President Candice Quinn Kelly. The quote had been inaccurately attributed to La Plata resident Brendan Moon.