Continuing TLR’s analysis of the two orders issued Friday morning by the judge in the circuit court lawsuit over District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates’ (D) authority to vote on the employment contract of the county administrator, today we look at the document that, more than any other, lies at the heart of the case: the 2020 report of findings by an independent investigator into allegations of improper workplace behavior filed by District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) and County Administrator Mark Belton against each other that triggered a legal dispute that has so far cost taxpayers close to half a million dollars.
Commonly referred to as the “Sargeant report” after the investigator, Bernadette Sargeant, an attorney with the Washington, DC, law firm Stinson, LLC, the 27-page report served as the basis for the Board of County Commissioners’ June 9, 2020 vote in closed session to bar Coates from contact with, or any administrative actions related to, County Administrator Mark Belton.
A heavily redacted version of the minutes of that meeting, along with a fully unredacted version of a legal memorandum from Coates’ legal team arguing why the court should dismiss the case, were also released Friday as part of Judge Green’s order.
As TLR has reported, Stewart and Bowling originally submitted the investigator’s report and closed session minutes with their original complaint in December 2022; at that time, they also requested that they be sealed “[i]n an abundance of caution” due to the sensitivity of their contents. Stewart’s and Bowling’s counsel has been seeking the judge’s approval to release all three documents since January.
“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,” their attorney argued.
While Coates’ counsel has not formally opposed the release of the Sargeant report, they have argued that the report is “utterly flawed” and “contain[s] spurious allegations of racial discrimination against Coates” that she has been “unable to either adequately investigate or respond publicly to” because of the terms of a temporary restraining order placed on her by Judge Green.
Report Reveals Collins Asked Belton to Resign
In addition to providing a blow-by-blow chronology of the claims and counter-claims of both parties backed by extensive quotations from emails, documents, and interview testimony, the report also reveals that, as the working relationship between Belton and Coates continued to deteriorate, Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) took the extraordinary step of asking Belton to consider voluntarily resigning as a way to solve the problem. Collins’ action was independently confirmed by both Belton and Collins himself during the course of Sargeant’s investigation.
“Collins said that the quality of Belton’s work was excellent but he asked him to resign because he thought it would have been easier to have someone else in the position,” Sargeant wrote. “Collins specifically referred to the tensions created by Coates who he said was determined to do everything she could inside and outside the building to make a case to remove Belton.”
The report states that Collins had met with Coates early in Belton’s tenure to “encourage her to moderate the tone of her communication with Belton” but, according to Collins, “Coates had refused to change anything.” Later he described the conversation with Coates to County Human Resources Director Alexis Blackwell as “just irrational” and “exasperating.”
Collins also encouraged Belton and Blackwell to meet with Coates to “try and find an appropriate way forward.” The report does not make clear whether such a meeting took place.
Report Also Reveals Another Investigation of Discrimination Allegations
Unlike the copy of the Sargeant report that began making the rounds on social media and in news reports following Friday’s announcement, the officially unsealed version available on TLR includes an appendix containing a list of documents reviewed by Sargeant in a previously unrevealed separate investigation that she conducted into allegations by County Chief of Capital Services John Stevens of discriminatory actions against him by senior county personnel — including Belton.
The report establishes that Sargeant was first hired by the county to investigate Stevens’ claims, during which she was asked to conduct a separate investigation into Belton’s and Coates’ counter-claims.
While the report of that investigation has not been made public, a summary of the report, submitted as evidence in a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by Stevens against the county and Belton in December 2020, reveals that Stevens’ “claims of race discrimination, excessive abuse of power, defamation of character, harassment, hostile work environment and intimidation were disproven as a result of the investigation.”
The existence of this second, previously unknown Sargeant investigation was first revealed, briefly, in a filing by Coates’ attorneys in early March seeking to suspend the temporary restraining order.
TLR will be discussing this previously unknown investigation, the circumstances surrounding it, and its relationship to the Coates-Belton investigation, in more detail in a future story.
The Sargeant report, the closed session minutes, and the motion to dismiss all define the competing narratives at play in this case. However, their ability to affect the outcome of the case is almost certainly nil. During the public hearing on January 24, Judge Green stated in no uncertain terms that he would not be second-guessing the actions taken by the board during the June 9, 2020, closed session.
“Most important here in my determination is I don’t know how you unring the bell when three Commissioners who presently sit on this body adopted the findings of the [Sargeant report],” Judge Green said in his summing up. “I don’t know whether Ms. [Sargeant] was right, I don’t know whether she’s wrong, that is not my call. But, she made findings and the Board adopted them, [and] those are the findings of the Board from that end.”
The real importance of these documents is the light they shed on a hitherto opaque chapter in the recent history of the Board of Charles County Commissioners. Although Judge Green is unlikely to be swayed by the arguments offered as to why Commissioner Coates, County Administrator Belton, Commissioners’ President Collins, and others acted the way they did three years ago, the residents who have to live with the consequences of those actions today certainly deserve an explanation for those actions. Judge Green’s decision to unseal the documents offers residents a place to search for at least the beginnings of one.
Download the Court Documents Discussed in This Post
1: “Order [to Stay the Circuit Court Proceeding],” March 31, 2023
2: “Order [to unseal Defendant Thomasina 0. Coates’ Memorandum in Support of her Motion to Dismiss and Exhibits 1 and 2 to Plaintiffs’ Complaint],” March 31, 2023
- Plaintiff’s Exhibit 1: “Report of Investigation of Allegations Made by County Administrator Mark Belton and by County Commissioner Thomasina Coates,” May 25, 2020
- Plaintiff’s Exhibit 2: “County Commissioners’ Meeting, Closed Session Minutes, Tuesday June 9, 2020“
- “Memorandum in Support of Defendant Commissioner Thomasina O. Coates’ Motion to Dismiss the Complaint,” January 13, 2023 (FULLY UNREDACTED)