A former Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) law office employee has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, according to records obtained by The Gunpowder Gazette, in which the document shows the employee claims she was fired for refusing an order to destroy financial disclosure statements in 2018 and to falsify and post-date records in order to manipulate the timeline for when the records were actually destroyed.
In a 19-page complaint, filed on March 3 under Case # C-03-CV-20-000961, records show that plaintiff, Jeanette Perry-Murray, a former litigation specialist who had been employed by BCPS in its law office since 2000, is represented by Towson-based law firm, Bodie, Dolina, Hobbs, Friddell & Grenzer, P.C.
According to the complaint, Perry alleges that the BCPS attorney, who oversaw the destruction of documents, asked her to participate in a cover-up and that BCPS terminated her employment under the guise of other matters following an almost two-decade exemplary career “after she refused to engage in unlawful acts.”
The district did not respond to a request for comment and clarification by the time this story published. Perry could not be reached for comment.
In the records, obtained by this publication on Wednesday, Perry’s attorneys laid out the case in which their client alleges that BCPS’ actions were made with ill will and in retaliation of her “refusal to engage in unlawful acts” in which the document states that Perry says she was asked to destroy financial disclosure statements and to fabricate a timeline as to when the records were destroyed.
As a result, Perry’s attorneys state that their client suffered “loss of employment, past and future wages, and employment-related benefits, including health insurance and pension…” According to the complaint, Perry is suing the district for an amount in excess of $75,000.
Immediately following the late January 2018 indictment of former Superintendent S. Dallas Dance, a six-month investigation began by this reporter on February 14, 2018 in which dozens of financial disclosure statements were requested for numerous employees.
Dance was later convicted on four perjury counts for providing misleading information on the same type of forms. He was sentenced in April 2018 and spent four months in jail.
As previously reported, document metadata, also discovered by this reporter, showed that the school system created a log to keep track of the future destruction of records within an hour after the first request for records was made, which Perry’s complaint also notes.
The document – called a Financial Disclosure Statements Certificate of Records Destruction – stated that nearly 2.400 records were destroyed on April 27, 2018 and approximately 200 others were destroyed on August 1, 2018.
Over the six-month period, some records requested by this reporter were unavailable since the law office said they had been destroyed in accordance with school policy, while other statements remained available for a time, later to be destroyed.
At the time, this reporter was unaware that the law office has been actively destroying nearly 2,600 records during the records requests, which the director and attorney for the office later said was done to make room for 300 incoming statements that year.
The statements, which are signed under penalty of perjury, are roughly 16 pages each and ask employees for details about side work and payments made to them by outside companies and organizations. The forms are designed to prevent conflicts of interest and require full disclosure of outside interests that may involve school system work and contracts.
While the school system maintains that records were destroyed in accordance with school policy – which states that the office must only retain them for four years from the time each one is filed – records show that Baltimore County schools’ law office had not made use of its policy for at least 21 years of maintaining the records.
According to the complaint, Perry’s attorneys assert that BCPS’s general counsel instructed staff in the law office to “create a document purporting to be the Office of Law’s internal guidelines for the destruction of FDS’s that would support the propriety and legality of the FDS’s destruction,” bringing into question the validity of the school system policy. The complaint further alleges that “The Office of Law did not obtain permission from the Maryland State Archives to destroy the FDS’s and did not notify the State Archives that the FDS’s had been destroyed, which BCPS was required to do.”
In the case filing, Perry’s attorneys note that in her 19-year employment in BCPS’s law office, the office had never discarded of records in such a manner.
“It is particularly troubling that the FDS’s were intentionally destroyed in the midst of the criminal and press investigations into financial irregularities at BCPS and the pending Audit, which would have necessarily involved the review of the FDS’s from 2012- 2013 that the office of law destroyed,” according to the legal paperwork. “Moreover, during plaintiffs nineteen (19) years with Office at Law, the Office of Law had never shredded records in this manner. When shredding large amounts of documents, Office of Law employees held an ‘office cleanup day,’ dressed in a casual manner, reviewed and boxed materials that could be shredded or archived, and logged the materials accordingly. For materials designated to be shredded, employees boxed materials in boxes marked ‘shred,’ which were removed by BCPS custodians. Office of Law employees did not shred materials.”
Maryland’s Public Information Act (MPIA) statute – which is the process by which public records are requested from state agencies – states that even if an agency is not required to keep a document that – if requested – it should be provided to the requester.
Instead, the law office made the decision to destroy the documents without the knowledge of even the school board, concurrent to an active request for the records by this reporter, and immediately preceding a procurement audit of the school system which involved some of the very records destroyed.
In all, nearly 2,600 records were destroyed, encompassing years 1997 to 2013.
Calls for a comprehensive audit – which spanned 2012 through 2017 — initially followed a pair of fall 2017 New York Times and Baltimore Sun articles that questioned ties between employees and education technology vendors.
The requests for an audit intensified after former Superintendent Dance’s indictment on the perjury charges.
Despite more than 30 public record requests submitted by this reporter, requesting information surrounding the destruction of thousands of documents which could produce an actual timeline detailing precisely when each document was disposed, the general counsel for Baltimore County schools’ law office – the location where the records had been housed and destroyed – says the office simply had no records or documentation of exactly how the massive document purge took place, even though it occurred under the counsel’s watch and direction.
But the court documents make some of those details clear. After two employees purportedly refused to destroy the records, a third complied, shredding them in the law office while using the office’s own paper shredder.
For over 18 months, this reporter pressed for details, but came up virtually empty-handed except the denial of a string of emails suppressed by the same law office between its director and general counsel, Margaret-Ann Howie, and the school board on the topic of the financial record destruction.
In the legal complaint, attorneys for Perry, the employee who worked under Howie and who is now suing the school board, noted that it would have been a criminal misdemeanor if their client “willfully and knowingly violated MPIA by destroying responsive records” to this reporter’s public record requests which caused Perry to refuse the order.
The legal filing also shows that another law office employee also refused to destroy the records which may have led to the office hiring an additional temporary employee to sort some of the records. Records obtained by The Gunpowder Gazette show that the additional temporary employee – not named in the lawsuit – was paid roughly $15,000 to sort the records and perform other law office duties during the time.
Perry’s attorneys allege that by destroying records responsive to this reporter’s MPIA request, “BCPS violated Ms. Constantino’s (sic) rights to obtain government documents and to judicial review of any responsive documents shielded from disclosure”
Had Perry participated in “the cover-up,” her attorneys said, “she would have participated in frustrating Ms. Constantino’s (sic) statutory rights under MPIA” and would have engaged in conduct punishable with jail time and monetary penalties.
According to the case filing, during a March 2019 meeting, Perry and other employees were told by BCPS’s general counsel that “the press was still digging for information about the destroyed FDS’s” and that the lead attorney wanted to be ready “to strike.”
According to the document, Perry and another BCPS employee – an attorney – were allegedly instructed to “fabricate a timeline that would show that the FDS were destroyed prior to Ms. Constantino’s (sic) request and were not destroyed as a result of the investigations into Dr. Dance” and the system’s former interim Superintendent Verletta White.
According to the complaint, Perry refused the order and “did not create the timeline of destruction” requested by the attorney who oversaw the shredding of records due to the active request made by this reporter.
Further, according to the complaint,, Perry discussed her refusal to comply with the request with another BCPS attorney, stating that she “wanted nothing to do with the FDS’s.” That attorney would soon after review her previous work and admonish her with a warning that her contract may not be renewed, the complaint shows.
According to the complaint, Perry was fired in June 2019 – one month after filing her own MPIA request – when she appealed a decision made by the system’s law office about her pay scale which she deemed inaccurate and punitive. The law office took eight months – exceeding the statutory 30 allowable days – to provide her the records and only did so after she hired an attorney for the case against the school board.
A trial date has not yet been set for the case. Due to the statewide shutdown of courts due to COVID-19, Maryland’s courts will remain closed until at least May 1, 2020. Perry’s attorneys have requested a jury trial.
This story may be updated with new information.