Three of County Executive John R. Leopold's top aides have threatened to sue a co-worker for libel after she accused them of sexual harassment, spying and destroying documents.
An attorney for the three aides wrote two letters to the co-worker demanding an apology and calling the woman's claims "libelous" and "slanderous." The letter also calls for her to retract her sworn affidavit, filed in two civil suits against Leopold.
"The goal is plain and simple," attorney T. Joseph Touhey, who wrote the letter, said in an interview. "Either she's telling the truth or these people are telling the truth. And these people are outraged."
The lawyer who took Carla Sagerholm's affidavit said he believes all of her claims are true and that Touhey's letter may have crossed a line.
"It's outrageous to threaten a witness," attorney John Singleton said. "These people have absolute immunity."
Among other allegations, Sagerholm's affidavit accused Leopold's Chief of Staff Erik Robey and Mark Chang, who works in constituent services, of sexually harassing women in the office. She accused Robey of enlisting Chang and Brenda Reiber, director of Community Services, to spy on other employees to detect disloyalty. The three deny the charges.
"Robey's a married man," Touhey said. "Who is this woman accusing him of being a sexual predator?"
"She's taken on the entire office as though everyone is a liar and cheat," he added, "and there comes a point at which people are just not going to tolerate that."
Singleton said the threats against Sagerholm are a pattern from the Leopold administration.
"She has nothing to gain or lose by the outcome of this case," Singleton said. "She comes in and says, 'I know about this and I feel bad.' ... She offers to give a statement, and she gets attacked"
Sagerholm, who could not be reached for comment, has worked for Leopold's office since 2008. She said in the affidavit she is on medical leave for post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the "toxic environment" in Leopold's office.
The two-term Republican county executive faces two civil lawsuits from former employees who allege he created a hostile work environment for women and fired employees who complained. Sagerholm's affidavit was filed as part of both the civil lawsuits.
The civil suits are separate from a pending criminal case against Leopold that charged him with five counts of misconduct for allegedly misusing his police detail for personal and political gain. Leopold has denied wrongdoing in both cases. A county spokesman declined to comment.
Earlier this week, Leopold's attorney asked a judge to toss the Sagerholm affidavit from one civil case, arguing it was "scandalous" and irrelevant. On Friday, County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson filed a motion asking to strike it from the second case on similar grounds. A judge has not ruled on either motion.
The lawsuit threat, the suggestion of witness intimidation and the accusation of false court documents complicate an already sensitive case, outside experts said.
"On first blush, it sounds heavy handed," Byron Warnken, an attorney who teaches at University of Baltimore School of Law, said of the demands in Touhey's letter. He added that people often threaten lawsuits to get want they want outside a courtroom.
"I think both sides are treading dangerously," he said.
Laws protect witnesses who come forward in discrimination cases, but other laws protect people from having false statements published about them, said Deborah Eisenberg, assistant professor for the University of Maryland School of Law and director of Center for Dispute Resolution.
"It's sort of a battle of protected activities," Eisenberg said. "You also can't lie about people."
Eric B. Eason, who teaches media law at the University of Baltimore's law school, said that any accusations Sagerholm made in a court document are protected from libel or slander claims. Eason also said that if Sagerholm's claims are true, she's also protected from defamation lawsuits.
"If in fact a person has been wronged, they can make an allegation of perjury, which is a crime," Eason said. "You're not without recourse, but the recourse is not defamation."
Touhey said Sagerholm doesn't enjoy those protections because the affidavit was circulated to the media before it was filed in court. The Baltimore Sun reported on the document after it was filed in court.
"If she's done it and published it and repeated it out of a court proceeding, then she's not protected," Touhey said. "You can say whatever you want in a courtroom. Walk outside in the hallway and say the same damn thing, and you'll get sued."
Singleton said Sagerholm didn't share the affidavit with the media.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun