Wilhelm Joseph, the longtime director of Maryland Legal Aid whose leadership has been the target of recent criticism by current and former employees, is retiring, The Capital has learned.
Warren Oliveri, president of the board of directors, told employees at a meeting Tuesday that Joseph will leave the agency at a date yet to be set, three employees on the call said. The employees recounted details of the meeting on the condition that they remain anonymous out of concern they might lose their jobs.
A search for Joseph’s replacement is already underway, Oliveri told employees and other board members during the organization’s annual all-staff meeting held over video conference.
He offered no reason why Joseph was leaving the organization he has led for almost 25 years.
Neither Joseph nor Oliveri could be reached for comment Tuesday. A spokesperson for the nonprofit legal firm did not respond to a request for comment.
During the same meeting, Deputy Chief Counsel Gina Polley, a member of Joseph’s executive team, announced she is also retiring, effective Dec. 31, the employees said. Polley’s announcement had been known before the meeting but was made formal Tuesday.
The leadership changes were announced a day after the union representing Maryland Legal Aid revealed two votes of no confidence, one for Joseph’s executive team and the other for Oliveri and the Board of Directors.
Joseph has been the executive director at Maryland Legal Aid since September 1996. Polley was hired as deputy chief counsel in April 2016 after serving as chief attorney in the Montgomery County office.
More than 100 former employees criticized Joseph, other members of the organization’s executive team and the board of directors after four top attorneys, including two from the Anne Arundel office, were fired without explanation after expressing concerns regarding the organization’s plans to reopen offices during the pandemic.
Joseph had previously told other news organizations he had no intentions of retiring despite the criticism he and the organization have received stemming from the unexplained terminations.
Monday, the union representing staff-level employees notified organization leadership that its members had passed resolutions of “no confidence” against both the executive team and the board in response to the firings and subsequent lack of explanation.
Union representatives said that despite the Maryland Legal Aid Workers Union not representing the four fired attorneys, their termination has depressed morale among its members, quashed dissent and left people with no confidence in the organization’s leaders.
Neither Oliveri nor Joseph made mention of the “no confidence” votes during the meeting. Joseph praised workers for their “selfless” effort to help clients during the pandemic, calling them “heroes,” and comparing them to frontline workers, said an employee who was on the call.
“He compared us to medical professionals, in the sense that like we’re … essential workers,” an employee on the call said. “It was kind of a vibe of like, ‘You’re heroes, you’re putting your lives on the line to help these clients.’ And that’s kind of gross at this point because we shouldn’t have to be.”
Anne Arundel Chief Attorney Anita Bailey, and two other office heads, John Marshall of the Montgomery office, and Blake Fetrow of the Metro office, were among 11 office managers who signed a letter in July pushing back on the organization’s plans to reopen its offices for the first time since March.
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A week after the letter was delivered, the three were fired along with Bailey’s deputy, Lisa Sarro, who had raised concerns about returning to work but didn’t sign the letter.
A complaint has been filed with the National Labor Relations Board on Bailey, Fetrow and Marshall’s behalf in the wake of their firing. Investigations into the complaint are ongoing.
The trio has also filed a complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging age discrimination, among other charges. The union has said they wish to be reinstated to their positions immediately. Sarro said she has no interest in returning to the organization.
The organization closed all 12 of its offices statewide in March as the pandemic took hold. After four months of remote work, the executive team began to announce plans to reopen to the public, a decision that concerned many staff members, including those with health concerns or childcare needs. The organization continued with its reopening plans.
Over the weekend, employees were informed in an organization-wide email that despite rising coronavirus infections in the state and a wave of new restrictions, Maryland Legal Aid offices would remain open.
“It is important to keep open as many ‘doors’ to MLA as possible for the benefit of MLA’s clients and other constituencies, particularly during these most difficult times,” Alec Chase, a Maryland Legal Aid communications coordinator, wrote in an email to staff obtained by The Capital.
The Maryland Court of Appeals announced Thursday it would be returning to Phase III operations and suspending all criminal and civil trials. In July, Maryland Legal Aid timed its reopening with the court’s plans.