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In Harford County, ongoing disputes with Cassilly ‘not beneficial,’ council president says


In Harford County, ongoing disputes with Cassilly ‘not beneficial,’ council president says

Sep 26, 2023 | 6:56 am ET
By Bryan P. Sears
In Harford County, ongoing disputes with Cassilly ‘not beneficial,’ council president says
A view of the Harford County Government administrative offices building. Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

Harford County Executive Robert Cassilly (R) added to political tensions in his county last week by temporarily blocking the county auditor from accessing financial information, a potential violation of the Harford County Charter.

The move is yet another front opened in the ongoing tensions between the first-year executive and other officials — mostly Republicans — in the county. And both sides offer divergent takes, with Cassilly again charging that unnamed council members, through the auditor, were inappropriately accessing confidential information.

In Harford County, ongoing disputes with Cassilly ‘not beneficial,’ council president says
Harford County Council President Patrick Vincenti (R), said ongoing disagreements between the council and executive “are not beneficial.” Screenshot from video call interview.

Harford County Council President Patrick Vincenti (R) said the “stacking of issues, one after the other,” has become a distraction.

“There’s not a day goes by that my phone doesn’t ring multiple times asking me what is going on and why can’t we just stick to the business at hand? Where’s all this coming from?” said Vincenti. “I try my best to answer the questions as best I can, but I don’t have all the answers because a lot of the issues and turmoil are not coming from the county council.”

The ongoing issues are starting to take a toll on the relationship between Cassilly and a council that is controlled by his party.

“It’s strained,” said Vincenti. “It’s strained. It just seems like we spend so much time working on negative issues that it takes away from the positive things that we should be doing.”

Earlier this month, Cassilly added to the strain by restricting the access of Harford County Auditor Chrystal L. Brooks to a financial reporting program used by the county. Brooks is appointed by and reports to the council.

“They wanted to monitor some of the things she might have access to,” said Vincenti. “The charter is very clear that she has the right to view all documents pertaining to revenues and expenditures.”

Vincenti said that right is “unfettered,” a position he said the council has not wavered from during discussions with Cassilly’s office.

The temporary restrictions imposed by Cassilly appear tied to budget disputes that started this spring and include Cassilly’s opposition to a proposed new facility for the Harford County Sheriff’s Department.

Vincenti said he believes most of the tension arose from “the first budget process. We saw some things differently.”

And while Vincenti said Cassilly funded “about 85% of the requests” made by the council, the two branches of government see the new facility for the sheriff’s department differently.

Cassilly put the proposal on hold in August as he searches for options that are less costly and include space for multiple government agencies.

The program Cassilly imposed restrictions upon was the same one the auditor’s office used in May to identify a budget transfer by Cassilly between departments that the council had not yet approved, according to Councilmember Aaron Penman, a freshman Republican.

Penman, who initially left the sheriff’s department but has since returned, challenged Cassilly on the transfer issue.

What resulted was a search of Penman’s emails and those of other current and former county officials and some private citizens.

A Cassilly spokesperson acknowledged denying the auditor access to some financial data citing concerns about sensitive information.

In Harford County, ongoing disputes with Cassilly ‘not beneficial,’ council president says
Harford County Executive Robert Cassilly at the J. Millard Tawes Clam Bake and Crab Feast in 2021. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

“For a short time, we temporarily required the auditor to access certain information by request,” the spokesperson said in an emailed response to questions.

“The county maintains extensive data on employees, financial transactions, and many other matters,” the spokesperson continued. “Some of that information is confidential and not properly available to the public or to council members. The county tries to provide the auditor direct, open access to as much of that data as possible so that she can execute her lawful functions with maximum convenience. It had come to our attention that the direct access provided to the auditor was possibly being misused by council members to obtain confidential information they were not entitled to access.”

The statement did describe what types of information was allegedly accessed or which council members were seeking the data.

In the statement, the Cassilly spokesperson said the executive’s office restricted access “to allow the county an opportunity to put in place appropriate protocols to assure only proper access to information, all direct access was suspended for five days. This was to allow the county to identify all information to which the auditor had direct access and allow the development and implementation of proper protocols. Those protocols were agreed to, and the auditor’s direct access was restored.”

The statement did not elaborate on what limits were put in place. Vincenti maintained the Harford County Charter does not allow for restricting the auditor’s access.

“She needs to do her job,” said Vincenti. “She needs to be able to respond to councilmember requests and questions. In order to do that, she needs full access. Our position is that she should have full access.”

‘Just a lot of yelling’

Cassilly, a member of a politically well-known Harford County family, has described the outrage as political attacks by unnamed entrenched political entities in his county.

The statement issued by his spokesperson mirrors other allegations Cassilly has made in recent weeks.

Following a news conference last week by Harford State’s Attorney Alison Healey (R), Cassilly alleged political retaliation by unnamed donors and other political influencers. When asked by a reporter to be specific, Cassilly told the reporter: “I’m not going to do your job.”

The kerfuffle over how much access the auditor would receive is one of a number that some observers see as miscues in Cassilly’s first year in office.

At the start of his term late last year, Cassilly initially refused to recognize Democratic Councilmember Jacob Bennett’s election, citing a County Charter provision he said barred Bennett from serving while retaining his job as a Harford County middle school science teacher. The Supreme Court of Maryland in March ruled Bennett could hold both his day job and a seat on the council.

Cassilly has also found himself at odds with Penman over the budget transfer as well as the allegations of illegal access to emails of the council member and others.

The email incident remains the subject of an continuing criminal investigation. Initially, the issue fell to Healey, the Republican prosecutor, who declared a conflict of interest in the case and referred the matter — without any recommendation — to the Office of the State Prosecutor. That investigation includes at least one subpoena issued by a Harford County grand jury.

Cassilly then blocked Healey’s access to the email account of a senior official in her office who went on emergency family leave.

Healey said the “emails include invoices, contracts, personnel actions, and state and federal grant correspondence that simply cannot be ignored for any period of time, let alone the extended period.

Cassilly compared her request to his search of emails and tied her access to releasing a statement saying he committed no crime in his search, calling such a statement “the magic bullet.”

Healey threatened to seek a judicial order. She also said she would seek funding to move the email system of her office off the county-controlled system.

Cassilly staved off another court battle by granting access to new emails. Healey called it a “temporary solution” and hinted at future requests or additional actions to force access.

The agreement has done little to soften tensions between the two.

Healey, speaking Monday on WBAL radio, described a recent in-person meeting between herself and Cassilly as “just a lot of yelling and [Cassilly] saying [she should] just admit that what he [Cassilly] did was not a crime.”

Healey called the interaction inappropriate and said unnamed staff in the meeting “almost had to step in.”

Vincenti said the council wants to move beyond the current relationship but is not clear what that will take.

“At the end of the day, I want the county executive to be successful,” said Vincenti. “If he’s successful, we’re all successful. We’re also mindful of the challenges.

“I don’t know what the answer is. I really don’t.”