The Charles County Ethics Commission on Wednesday issued an advisory opinion recommending that District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) should recuse herself from voting on whether the county should pay for her legal expenses related to her appeals of last September’s circuit court ruling.
The opinion, the commission’s first in over a year, says that Coates would violate the county’s ethics code if she voted on “any matter that could result in the Board assuming any of [her] obligations to pay litigation expenses for either or both of the appeals” that her attorneys have filed with the Appellate Court of Maryland.
However, the commission also ruled that Coates would not violate the ethics code if she participated in votes to authorize reimbursement of legal fees incurred by the board itself.
A Litigation Primer
Because it’s been over five months since the circuit court decision was handed down, a quick refresher is probably in order.
As TLR reported a year ago, in June 2020 the board voted in closed session — and unbeknownst to county citizens — to bar Coates from participating in any votes related to the employment of County Administrator Mark Belton following a confidential investigation by outside counsel that found she had discriminated against Belton and created a hostile work environment. The circuit court lawsuit arose as a result of a contentious closed session of the board in December 2022 during which Coates, Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D), and newly elected District 4 Commissioner Ralph E. Patterson (D) attempted to vote to fire Belton despite the restrictions that had been emplaced on Coates over two years previously.
Last February, during the early phase of the circuit court case, Coates’ attorneys filed an interim, or “interlocutory,” appeal with the Appellate Court of Maryland asking it to determine whether a temporary restraining order imposed on Coates by the judge was illegal. The judge had imposed the order as a way to preserve the status quo until he could issue a final ruling in the case, which he did in September, permanently barring Coates from voting on Belton’s employment contract. Following the ruling, the Appellate Court of Maryland dismissed the appeal as moot.
A month after the circuit court ruling, Coates’ attorneys filed a notice with the appeals court that they intended to appeal the ruling, asking the court to consider a set of questions about whether the circuit court judge had erred or abused his discretion in ruling that Coates should be permanently barred from voting on Belton’s employment contract.
According to a scheduling order issued last week by the appeals court, Coates’ attorneys have until March 4 to submit their brief and supporting documents to the court, after which the appellees will have 30 days to file their responses.
Ethics Commission Focuses on Conflict of Interest Standards
According to the ethics commission opinion, the board has already paid the legal fees incurred by the appellees (District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D), District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D), County Administrator Belton, and the Board of County Commissioners as a legal entity). TLR understands that Coates sought the advisory opinion from the ethics commission following an impasse during a closed board session during which Coates argued that she should be allowed to participate in a vote on whether the county should pay her legal fees in both appeals.
In considering Coates’ request for an opinion, the ethics commission limited its considerations strictly to the question of voting, not whether the board was obligated to pay Coates for the legal fees she has already incurred, and would continue to incur, during the appeals process.
“Those questions are for the Board to decide, with or without [Coates’] vote,” the opinion states.
The commission members reviewed Section 170-5 of the ethics code, titled “Prohibited Conduct and Interests,” which addresses “conduct that would be broadly considered to be conflicts of interest,” as the commission described it.
The relevant parts of section 170-5 deal with prohibitions against participating in “any matter in which, to the knowledge of the official or employee, the official or employee or a qualified relative of the official or employee has [a legal or financial] interest” (sections 170-5.A.(1) and 170-5.A.(3)) and the misuse of “the prestige of office “or public position for the private gain of that official or employee or the private gain of another” (section 170-5.D.).
The commission concluded that the language of section 170-5.A. clearly established that “there is no sufficient justification to authorize [Coates] to participate in a vote,” and that this was enough to obviate the need to consider whether the “prestige of office” issue covered in section 1705.D. also applied.
“As stated in Section 170-2.A. of the Ethics Code, people have a right to be assured that the impartiality and independent judgment of public officials and employees will be maintained,” the ethics commission members wrote. “Our interpretation . . . is guided by our belief that [Coates’] participation in a vote that might have the effect of absolving [her] from a possible personal contractual financial obligation would compromise the public trust.”
They noted, however, that their conclusions were “tempered by uncertainties” as to whether Coates was legally obligated to pay the two law firms she had engaged to represent her in the various lawsuits. In any case, the opinion noted, that question falls outside the commission’s mandate to focus on legal matters outside the ambit of the county ethics code.
Four of the five members of the ethics commission signed the advisory opinion. TLR understands that the fifth member, County Attorney Wes Adams, recused himself from the deliberations due to his involvement in the circuit court case.*
If Coates abides by the ethics commission advisory opinion and recuses herself from a board vote on whether to reimburse her for legal expenses related to the two appeals, any vote on the issue is likely to end in a tie and will therefore fail. (Based on previous votes and discussions during open board sessions, TLR expects that Bowling and Stewart would not vote in favor of additional taxpayer subsidization for Coates’ appeals, while Collins and Patterson would likely vote in favor.) If that happens, then Coates would presumably be liable for the unpaid balance.
On the other hand, all parties must certainly know that if a vote on the issue is called and Coates attempts to participate in it, the result would be unprecedented procedural chaos that would unfold live on CCGTV and be recorded for posterity — and no doubt be repeated ad nauseam throughout the 2026 election campaign. To avoid that, it’s likely that the parties would first attempt some kind of negotiations in closed session, though based on events to date, TLR doesn’t see much common ground on which to negotiate.
If the county commissioners decline to pay Coates’ legal bills for the appeals, any number of things could happen, including:
- Coates assumes the burden of paying her legal costs, either out of her own pocket or from contributions from friends, family, and supporters, or a combination of both.
- The legal firm representing Coates agrees to continue pro bono.
- Coates withdraws her appeal.
TLR will continue to watch this latest development as it continues to evolve, and will provide updates via the website, subscriber newsletter, and on its Facebook page, which readers are encouraged to follow for interim updates.
Download the Documents Discussed in This Post
2: “Scheduling Order,” January 23, 2024
* During the December 2022 closed session, Coates, Collins, and Patterson had also attempted to fire Adams, which they were unable to do because only Belton has the contractually mandated authority to do so. As circuit court case filings show, Coates’ attorneys have alleged that Adams was involved in a conspiracy with Belton to manipulate the 2020 investigation by outside counsel that found Coates had discriminated against Belton and created a hostile work environment. (go back)