Board Seeks to Quash Subpoenas for Investigation Documents

The Board of Charles County Commissioners’ counsel is seeking to block two subpoenas that would compel attorney Bernadette Sargeant to turn over documents related to her investigation into the events that led to a lawsuit over District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates’ (D) authority to vote on the employment contract of the county administrator.

Arguing that the information is exempt from disclosure because it was “created in the course of investigations into confidential personnel matters,” the board’s legal counsel filed a motion earlier this month in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia* seeking to quash subpoenas issued to Sargeant and her law firm Stinson, LLC, seeking “documents and communications” related to Sargeant’s investigation into events that took place between June 2019, when County Administrator Mark Belton filed an internal complaint alleging an “abusive hostile work environment” instigated by Coates, and December 13, 2022, when Coates, Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D), and Commissioners’ Vice President Ralph E. Patterson (D) attempted to vote to fire Belton during a closed board session.

The subpoenas, issued by Coates’ legal team in preparation for this week’s evidentiary hearing in the case, require the firm to turn over copies of all related internal and external correspondence, transcripts and recordings of interviews with county employees, and even the firm’s contractual and billing records related to its work on the investigation.

Subpoenas Would Violate Confidentiality, Cause Undue Burden, Board Argues

In his motion filed earlier this month, attorney Kevin Karpinski, representing the board in the lawsuit, argued that the subpoenas should be rejected because they require the disclosure of “privileged or protected” information and also subject the recipients to “undue burden” in responding to them.

“[T]here can be no serious legal question that communications between legal counsel for the Board and outside counsel retained for the purpose of providing legal advice are privileged,” Karpinski wrote. Furthermore, “because the records will have no bearing whatsoever on the any issue in this litigation, the burden of disclosing the records, as well as any review and publication of the same, is entirely undue, working a prejudice not only on the creators and correspondents, but on all parties to the litigation, including the County Administrator.”

Noting that the judge in the case has already ruled that the voting restrictions placed on Coates — called the “Prompt and Remedial Action,” or PRA — following the board’s acceptance of the investigation’s findings “cannot be undone,” Karpinski argues that the reason Coates’ lawyers are subpoenaing the documents and communications is to attempt to “revisit the investigation which conclusively resulted in the Board’s adoption of the PRA, an event that occurred now more than three (3) years ago.”

“The requested materials are utterly and entirely irrelevant to the issue before the Circuit Court for Charles County as to whether the PRA, long since adopted, has any ongoing effect following the election and change of personnel making up the Board. Stated differently, whether the PRA is still in effect is a legal question which will not turn on any belated, and frankly outdated, factual challenge to Ms. Sargeant’s investigation.” (❡9, emphasis in original)

Motion Argues Second Commissioner Investigation is Exempt

The subpoenas explicitly state that the documents and communications being sought by Coates’ attorneys are limited to the events that occurred between June 2019 and December 13, 2022. In their response, the board counsel noted that:

“Shortly after the December 13, 2022 [county commissioner] meeting, the County received additional complaints regarding the conduct of an elected official. This resulted in a second investigation, which investigation was also performed by Ms. Sargeant. The second investigation resulted in a report. The second investigation is entirely a separate matter, having no bearing whatsoever on the litigation through which these subpoenas are sought to be enforced.” (❡7)

As TLR previously reported, while the county has never publicly identified the commissioner or commissioners named in the five complaints that have been filed by county employees since the board adopted its policy explicitly forbidding harassment or discrimination by county commissioners, the existence of this subsequent** Sargeant investigation 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.

Since the subpoena applies strictly to Sargeant’s investigation of Coates, the reference to this investigation in the board’s motion suggests by inference that Coates was named in at least one of those complaints.

What’s Next?

As of publication time, the DC court has not ruled on the board’s motion to quash the subpoenas, which stipulate that the documents must be delivered by July 24 — just four days before the scheduled evidentiary hearing. TLR will provide updates on any developments in the subpoena ruling on its Facebook page, which readers are encouraged to follow for interim updates.

Unfortunately, an unavoidable scheduling conflict will prevent TLR from being able to cover the evidentiary hearing live in person, but it has requested the Court to consider live-streaming the hearing due to the high degree of public interest in the case. If the Court does so, TLR will be able to cover the hearing live and will also share the streaming link on Facebook for its readers’ convenience.

Download the Court Documents Discussed in This Post

1: Subpoena issued to Bernadette Sargeant (extract), June 16, 2023

2: Subpoena issued to Stinson, LLC (extract), June 16, 2023

3: “Defendant Charles County Board of County Commissioners Motion for a Protective Order and to Quash Foreign Subpoena,” Case Number 2023-CAB-003654 (Sargeant), July 13, 2023

4: “Defendant Charles County Board of County Commissioners Motion for a Protective Order and to Quash Foreign Subpoena,” Case Number 2023-CAB-003657 (Stinson, LLC), July 13, 2023

* The subpoenas, and the motion to quash them, were required to be filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia rather than in the Circuit Court for Charles County because Stinson’s office is in the District. (go back)

** Strictly speaking, this subsequent Sargeant investigation would be the third one that she is known to have conducted on behalf of the county. As TLR previously reported, the county originally hired Sargeant to investigate allegations by County Chief of Capital Services John Stevens of discriminatory actions against him by several senior county personnel, including Belton, during which time she was asked to also conduct a separate investigation into the counter-claims of Belton and Coates. Hence, the board counsel’s choice of words supports an inference that the board is here referring to a second investigation of Coates. (go back)