Once Marilyn Mosby and Keri Borzilleri were friendly colleagues in the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office, both prosecutors in District Court who chatted between cases. When Mosby held a fundraiser at home for her husband, a city councilman, Borzilleri showed up.
“It was a beautiful house,” Borzilleri told the court.
On Tuesday morning, there were no words between the two women. Borzilleri has sued Mosby, saying her firing four years ago amounts to a political reprisal.
Now an attorney for a federal agency in Washington, D.C., Borzilleri contends she was fired for publicly supporting Mosby’s political rival. Mosby’s lawyers, however, say it was because Borzilleri was terse with victims and witnesses.
“What this case is about, it’s simple,” Mosby’s attorney, Wendy Shiff, told the jury, “why was Keri Borzilleri terminated?”
While campaigning for state’s attorney five years ago, Mosby pledged to improve relations with the community and bolster support for witnesses. She fired Borzilleri a few days after taking office.
“She did not believe Ms. Borzilleri shared her vision and her platform with regard to the way victims and witnesses were treated,” said Shiff, a lawyer in the Maryland attorney general’s office.
The state office is defending Mosby. Tuesday brought opening statements in the five-day trial.
Borzilleri had worked nine years as an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore. She rose from prosecuting misdemeanor cases in district court to handling violent crimes in the downtown Circuit Court.
In January 2015 — about seven months shy of vesting an $11,000-a-year pension — Borzilleri was fired. She was given a choice of either one hour that Friday afternoon or two hours Saturday morning to clean out her office, her attorney told the court.
“As you can imagine, coming in one day and being fired after nine years was personally and emotionally devastating,” her attorney, Stacey Grigsby, said.
Like the rest of the prosecutors, Borzilleri was an “at-will” employee, meaning she had no contract with the office and could quit or be fired at any time and for almost any reason. As Grigsby told the jury, Borzilleri could have been fired for wearing the wrong color shirt.
She could not, however, have been fired for her politics. The Maryland Constitution protects her right to campaign outside of work — and she did.
In the 2014 Democratic primary election, Borzilleri openly supported her boss Gregg Bernstein over Mosby. She planted a Bernstein yard sign at her home. One evening, she held a meet-and-greet for the community with Bernstein. She supported him when out speaking with voters.
“It cost Ms. Borzilleri her job,” Grigsby said. “She is allowed to wear a different hat outside of work as a citizen. … She is allowed to campaign.”
Mosby won a stunning victory over Bernstein. Then she rose to national prominence by filing charges against six Baltimore Police involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest. None were convicted.
Borzilleri first sued Mosby in federal court, claiming the state’s attorney violated her rights to free speech and free association. But a federal appeals court sided with Mosby and found prosecutors are policymakers, exempt from First Amendment political protections.
Then Borzilleri brought her case to Baltimore Circuit Court. She has sued for an unspecified amount: the costs of her lost pension, lost income while unemployed, and some incidental expenses related to her firing.
Mosby’s attorney pointed to her deputy as evidence the firing wasn’t political. Her deputy, Michael Schatzow, was friends with Bernstein — they attended each other’s weddings — and he donated to Bernstein’s campaign.
In fact, Shiff said, Bernstein too had tapped Schatzow to be his deputy.
“Mrs. Mosby will tell you that it was not political support that played any role in her decision,” Shiff said. “Where’s the proof? Her No. 2 person was one of Gregg Bernstein’s biggest supporters.”