The Charles County Circuit Court on Thursday ordered the Charles County Board of Commissioners to release documents related to its authorization to reimburse former Commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly and former County Administrator Rebecca Bridgett for legal fees. The ruling came four months after an article in the Maryland Independent revealed that the paper had obtained confidential documents indicating that the commissioners had issued checks to Kelly and Bridgett in December 2015 and February 2016, respectively.
The reimbursements had been requested following a criminal investigation into Kelly’s attempts to obtain the W-2 tax forms of former Commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II in December 2011. According to grand jury testimony, Bridgett had attempted to enforce Kelly’s request to obtain the information from the county payroll office. Under federal law, tax information is considered private and may not be disclosed without consent. Kelly was not charged with any wrongdoing in the matter.
Following the article’s publication, Colin A. Byrd of Greenbelt and Paula L. Martino of Towson filed separate requests for records related to the payments under the Maryland Public Information Act. On April 21, the Office of the County Attorney petitioned the court to deny the requests and require Byrd and Martino to turn over all copies of the confidential document. Elizabeth D. Theobalds, acting county attorney, asserted that the release of the records would “substantially injure the public interest” and argued that they were protected from disclosure under the Maryland Open Meetings Act.
“The propriety of these payments is the subject of great public controversy and the rationale behind this decision [to reimburse Kelly and Bridgett] is critical to the public debate over these expenditures of public funds by the commissioners,” argued Gregory M. Kline, Martino’s attorney, in a petition to the court. Kline further argued that withholding the documents prevents accountability and serves only to “shield the commissioners from the proper public scrutiny required of elected officials vested with a public trust over taxpayer funds.”
“There exist various political issues surrounding this case, and various elected officials and governmental institutions have political and financial interests in preventing the disclosure of the information,” Kline wrote.
On Thursday, Judge James P. Salmon, a retired Maryland Court of Special Appeals judge, ruled that the county commissioners should release four sets of documents to Byrd and Martino: the contracts to pay legal fees on behalf of Kelly and Bridgett, the legal bills submitted on behalf of Kelly and Bridgett, the minutes of the commissioners’ meeting in which the payments were approved, and copies of the recorded vote that was taken to approve the payments.
“This is not about Commissioner Kelly,” Martino said in an interview following the ruling. “This is about the public’s right to know how their commissioners are spending taxpayer money.”
“What I certainly didn’t expect was that the county would decide to take the unusual action of suing me,” added Martino. Although Martino and Byrd were co-defendants in the suit, Martino said that she and Byrd had filed their requests independently of each other and have never met. “It was just a pure coincidence,” she said.
Martino is a former Charles County Government employee and resided in Charles County for many years, she said, but moved away a couple of years ago. She has performed work as a consultant with local governments, including Charles County, and others around the state and country.
“I have an interest in the way county governments work and serve the citizens, and again I do feel very, very strongly that they need to publicly account for how they spend taxpayer money,” Martino said. “And it appeared that [this] looked like an issue that should have been disclosed. I filed the PIA, the county responded by refusing my request and by suing me. But as it turns out, the judge agreed the arguments my lawyer made on my behalf. They do seem to have a legal obligation to disclose this information under the law.”
In discussing the ruling, Gregory M. Kline, Martino’s attorney, explained that by filing the petition against Martino and Byrd, “the county waived the right to withhold the documents under the MPIA exceptions. All the court had to decide then was whether the release of the documents would be harmful to the public interest.”
When reached for comment, Commissioners’ President Peter F. Murphy (D) said, “We are going to look at all of our options, but until then it would be premature to make a comment.”
The offices of the county attorney did not return a call for comment.
Kline said that he expects to receive the documents “at any time.”
“I think the more people who have access to the information, the better informed the taxpayers and residents of Charles County will be about decisions being made with their tax money,” Martino said.