Plaintiffs Ask Judge to Unseal Key Documents in Stewart et al. v Commissioners

The attorney representing two Charles County commissioners in a lawsuit against the rest of the board has asked the judge to unseal documents that could reveal the identity of a commissioner who was censured two years ago for racial discrimination and abusive behavior toward the county administrator.

The board’s censure of the commissioner, and the reasons for it, had been kept hidden from the public for over two years — including throughout the 2022 election.

Andrew Levy, who represents District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) and District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D), filed the motion to unseal three documents along with his detailed rebuttal of motions to dismiss the case submitted by Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D), District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D), District 4 Commissioner Ralph E. Patterson (D), and the board as a whole, represented by outside counsel.

Coates’ motion to dismiss the case, which was submitted with extensive redactions, is one of the documents that Levy is seeking to have unsealed. The other two documents, which were submitted by Stewart and Bowling as part of their original complaint, are a 27-page report by an independent outside counsel that details the results of an investigation into the unnamed commissioner’s racial discrimination against County Administrator Mark Belton, who is white, and the minutes of a closed board meeting in June 2020 during which the report was presented, after which the commissioners voted to bar the commissioner from participating in any employment decisions related to Belton or even communicating directly with him.

As reported previously by TLR (see here, here, and here), these apparently unprecedented actions were revealed during a contentious open session of the Board of County Commissioners on Dec. 13, 2022, when Bowling and Stewart sought to prevent the commissioners from convening a closed session during which, they claimed, the other three commissioners planned to vote to fire Belton. Without naming names, they pointed out that one of the three had been administratively barred from participating in such a vote by the censure, called a Prompt and Remedial Action, or PRA.

When the commissioners went into closed session that day, they reached a unanimous agreement to allow Stewart and Bowling to seek a judge’s ruling on whether the board could allow the censured commissioner to participate in employment decisions related to Belton.

“Given the public nature of the parties’ dispute about the PRA, and Defendants Commissioners’ specific arguments about Plaintiffs’ alleged failure to adequately support their claims, there is no basis for the Court to shield Commissioner Coates’s memorandum, or the exhibits to Plaintiffs Commissioners’ Complaint from public view,” Levy’s motion argues.

Characterizing the extensive redactions in Coates’ memorandum as “deeply offensive to the values enshrined in the First Amendment and by the Maryland Open Meetings Act,” the motion argues that the public nature of the dispute, as well as allegations by the three defendants that the plaintiffs have not adequately supported their claims, make it necessary for the documents to be released.

“As a basic matter of fairness, Defendants should not be permitted to argue that Plaintiffs’ claims are unsupported and make sweeping statements about the PRA, while, at the same time, demand that documents that undermine their assertions be shielded from the public’s view,” Levy wrote.

The motion explains that Stewart and Bowling had originally submitted the report of the outside counsel’s investigation and the minutes of the June 9, 2020, closed session under seal — meaning that they are shielded from public view during the legal process — out of “an abundance of caution.” However, the motion states, in arguing to dismiss the case the defendants mischaracterized what the sealed documents actually say, making it necessary for the contents of those documents to be revealed.

“Unsealing [the investigation report and the June 2020 closed session minutes] is necessary for the public to fully appreciate Plaintiffs’ rebuttal to Defendants’ misguided argument,” the motion states.

The accompanying rebuttal to the defendants’ motions to dismiss the case discloses some of the redacted information from Coates’ memorandum to buttress the plaintiffs’ case. For example, in that document Coates reportedly admits that she and the other two defendants called the Dec. 13, 2022, closed session with the specific intention of firing Belton, and would attempt to do so again unless the court explicitly instructed them not to — which supports Stewart’s and Bowling’s contention that the court needed to act immediately to prevent another attempt by the board to hold a vote that the censured commissioner has been administratively barred from participating in.

“It would be a monumental violation of the public’s trust for Defendant Commissioners to allow the censured Commissioner to vote on whether to terminate Mr. Belton’s employment,” Levy wrote in the rebuttal. “This harm is not speculative, it is certain.”

The motion to unseal the documents also quotes Commissioner President Collins as saying, during the June 9, 2020, closed session, that the Board was “left with no other choice, based on the facts presented in th[e] investigation, but to adopt [the PRA as] necessary to protect both the County and ourselves as individuals.”

Although some media reports have speculated that Coates is the unnamed censured commissioner, in their complaint and in subsequent interviews with the press, neither Bowling nor Stewart have said that Coates is the commissioner in question. Belton, who joined the case as a co-plaintiff, has not commented publicly on the case.

In the memorandum accompanying the motion to unseal the documents, Levy points out that the decision of the Board of County Commissioners to keep the investigation into the unnamed commissioner’s racial discrimination, and the PRA that followed, a secret from the public may have had political repercussions as well:

“Because the PRA was adopted in closed session, the voters in Charles County were unaware of its existence before the November 2022 election and it is at least as likely that had the PRA been disclosed in advance of the election (and the identity of the censured Commissioner revealed), the voters of Charles County would have been just as repulsed by the censured Commissioner’s conduct as the Board was when the Board, in President Collins’ words, was ‘left with no other choice’ but to adopt the PRA.”

If Judge Leo Green decides to open the sealed documents, it’s likely that the public will finally officially learn the identity of the censured commissioner. Furthermore, the documents may shed light on another crucial question in this case: why did the unnamed commissioner want to fire Belton in the first place? Was the commissioner simply acting out of racial animus, or were there other motives involved as well?

TLR hopes to be able to take a deep dive into the rest of the plaintiffs’ memorandum opposing the defendants’ motions to dismiss in a separate article coming soon. However, the plan may be overtaken by events because Tuesday, Jan. 24, is the scheduled hearing on the plaintiffs’ motions to dismiss the case. This is shaping up to be a busy week, so stay tuned.

Download the Court Documents Discussed in This Post

1: “Plaintiff Commissioners’ Motion to Unseal
2: “Consolidated Opposition to Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss
3: “Coates Motion to Dismiss