Employees Filed Five Complaints against County Commissioners Since Adoption of Anti-Harassment Policies

Employees of Charles County Government filed five complaints against unidentified members of the Board of County Commissioners in the three years since the board adopted a policy that explicitly forbids discrimination and harassment, TLR has learned.

Information obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request revealed that the claims were filed in January and December 2022, and again in January 2023. TLR learned that one of the five complaints was investigated internally and closed, while the other four were investigated by Bernadette Sargeant, an attorney with the Washington, DC, law firm Stinson, LLC.

As TLR has reported, Sargeant previously investigated allegations of improper workplace behavior filed by District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) and County Administrator Mark Belton against each other, as well as allegations by County Chief of Capital Services John Stevens of discriminatory actions against him by senior county personnel, including Belton.

At the time, Sargeant concluded that Stevens’ and Coates’ claims were unfounded, but upheld Belton’s claims, which led to a closed-session vote by the Board of County Commissioners in June 2020 to bar Coates from having any direct contact with or participating in any administrative actions related to Belton.

During that same closed session, the board agreed to amend the commissioners’ rules of procedure to add a policy prohibiting commissioners from “harass[ing], defam[ing], or bully[ing] another Commissioner” or engaging in “bullying behaviors directed toward County employees and all others who work [there].” The commissioners voted 4-1 to adopt the new policy, with Coates being the sole “no” vote.

In its response to TLR’s MPIA request, the county declined to identify the number of commissioners named in the five complaints, citing the “sensitive nature of the matter as a personnel issue [and the] need to maintain the confidentiality of affected individuals.” The county also declined to reveal the findings of the sole internal investigation and what, if any, remedial actions were taken.

Latest Sargeant Investigation Revealed in Court Records in April

The existence of a new investigation by Bernadette Sargeant was first publicly revealed in early April in an email submitted as evidence in Coates’ appeal of a temporary restraining order placed on her by the circuit court.

In the email, dated March 22, Coates’ counsel Mariam Tadros wrote that Coates would be withdrawing from the planned mediation as a result of learning about “a newly-concocted investigation targeting [Coates] that is being performed by Bernadette Sargeant, who contacted Ms. Coates directly, even though she is represented by counsel.”

During Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners open session, District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) announced that the county’s Department of Human Resources had notified the board that Sargeant’s investigation has been completed, and a copy of the report was available for them to review.* According to Bowling, who said he read the report, the investigation involved interviews with 17 employees whose names have been redacted.

What Action Will the Board Take in Response to the Latest Sargeant Report?

According to the amended commissioners’ rules of procedure,

“The Commissioners shall determine whether any action should be taken against the Commissioner or Commissioners against whom the complaint was made. No action may be taken without the unanimous support of all Commissioners who are not the subject of the complaint. Remedial actions available to the Commissioners include, but are not limited to, public censure and/or suspension of the Commissioner’s pay for one or more 30 day periods.”

During Tuesday’s open session, District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) said that she will be requesting a closed-session meeting of the board and its legal counsel to discuss whether to release the report to the public. However, during Tuesday’s discussion there was no indication of whether the board would also be meeting to review and discuss the report, and to vote on whether to take remedial action against the commissioner(s) named in this latest report.

If the report found that the commissioner(s) engaged in proscribed behavior and the board votes not to take appropriate remedial action, such a decision could potentially result in lawsuits being filed against the county by employees who were victims of the proscribed behavior.

TLR will continue monitoring developments in this story and will provide updates here and on Facebook as needed. To read TLR’s complete coverage of the circuit court and appellate cases, click here or select “Stewart et al. v Commissioners” from the “Categories” menu at right.

Download the Court Documents Discussed in This Post

1: “Plaintiffs-Appellees’ Opposition to Appellant’s Emergency Renewed Motion to Suspend Temporary Restraining Order and Unseal Minutes of Closed Sessions,” April 6, 2023

* Bowling’s comments on the matter begin at approximately the 42 minute mark. (go back)