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Swartz asks paper to sue for amount paid Howard

August 24, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Washington County Commissioners Vice President Paul Swartz asked The Herald-Mail last week to sue the county to force disclosure of the amount it paid former Economic Development Commission Director John Howard, becoming the second commissioner to ask the newspaper to take legal action over the issue.

"I would suggest that the paper sue," Swartz said.

On Wednesday, Commissioner William Wivell said the paper should ask the court for a legal opinion on the matter.

He said the county would then have to reveal how much the taxpayers spent on Howard's retirement package.

Terry Headlee, the newspaper's executive editor, said although nothing has been ruled out, it would be an unusual precedent for the newspaper to file a lawsuit against a government agency that is requesting to be sued to force the release of taxpayer-funded expenditures.

"My thinking right now is the commissioners got themselves into this mess, they can find their own way out of it," Headlee said.

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Howard had been on paid administrative leave since late March. He resigned May 8. The county announced his retirement on June 11. His salary at the time was $82,067.

County officials and the County Commissioners have refused to disclose the amount paid to Howard, claiming a county-signed confidentiality agreement with the former director prevents them from doing so.

County Attorney Richard Douglas has also argued several times that the payment was Howard's personal income, not salary, and is protected from being revealed under the Maryland Public Information Act.

Swartz and Wivell have said they didn't sign the agreement and that they disagree with Douglas' opinion.

They said the compensation should be public because it was funded with tax dollars.

Swartz and Wivell said they were told by county officials that they could be sued as individuals if they disclose the amount without an order from the court.

Douglas has said that if the amount is revealed, the county or the person who discloses it would face actual damages, punitive damages, criminal liability, disciplinary action and contempt. He said the county or person would also have to pay attorney fees and litigation costs.

"I want to release it but it's clear I will be singled out. I could lose my home," Swartz said Thursday.

Although Swartz said Howard has said he would not sue Swartz, he was told by county officials he would be at risk if he provides information.

"If we divulge anything, we open ourselves up for a personal lawsuit," Swartz said.

Howard said Thursday he didn't have any plans to reveal the amount and declined to comment further.

He said he had no comment on whether he'd sue the county if the county discloses the amount of his retirement compensation.

Economic Development Commission Chairman Douglas S. Wright Jr. said the EDC board has been told the compensation was not coming from the organization's budget.

EDC Secretary Peggy S. Bushey said that if the money had come from the EDC budget, she'd release the amount to the public.

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