Baltimore County is breaking state open-records laws by withholding numerous documents that should be released to the public, a former high-ranking veteran of county government alleges in a new lawsuit.
Fred Homan claims in the lawsuit that the county has violated the Maryland Public Information Act by refusing to turn over thousands of emails and by charging unreasonable fees for public records. Homan is the former county administrative officer and retired in 2018 after four decades in county government.
The lawsuit filed last week in Baltimore County Circuit Court also alleges that the county under County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s administration “unlawfully and improperly granted additional retirement benefits” to a county firefighter and that documents related to that case should be subject to public scrutiny.
“The terms of the settlement and the reasons for it are a matter of public interest,” states the lawsuit, which says the county paid the benefits “from an unknown fund, in an unknown amount.”
The lawsuit centers on Homan’s attempts under the Maryland Public Information Act to access records related to the firefighter’s case. It names as defendants the county, County Attorney James R. Benjamin, and Budget and Finance Director Edward P. Blades. The lawsuit asks the court to force the county to turn over the documents and “adopt reasonable rules and regulations for the inspection of public records.”
County spokesman Sean Naron said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun that the county and the firefighter “entered into an authorized confidential agreement” as part of a legal settlement. He said some of the records requested by Homan were retirement records not disclosable under the Public Information Act to protect privacy interests.
Naron said officials are hiring outside lawyers to represent the county and declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation.
In 2019, the lawsuit says, a county firefighter named Philip Tirabassi asked for two years and several months of service with another fire department to be used when calculating his county retirement benefits. The additional service time would have entitled him to a one-time payment of roughly $250,000 when he retired, according to the lawsuit.
Such credit transfers were allowed under a 1990 state law but at the time, county officials said employees had to request them within a certain timeframe, according to filings with the county Board of Appeals. County lawyers said in those filings that Tirabassi, whom the county hired in 1989, would have had to apply by July 1991.
Reached by phone, Tirabassi told The Sun that he filed the claim because the county didn’t properly notify him that he was able to transfer credits until it was too late.
An attorney for Tirabassi did not respond to requests for comment.
Homan said in an interview that when he was county budget director, the county turned down other employees who made requests similar to Tirabassi’s because they had missed the deadline to transfer service credits. He said he came across the case when he was looking for information about a local development on the county’s Board of Appeals website.
“It just didn’t feel right in the gut,” Homan said, that the county had a settlement with Tirabassi, “despite the facts being similar to all the other [transfer requests] l turned down.”
“Every retirement system ... has to have rules. You can’t make you decisions as you go,” he added. “You have to have rules that apply to everybody.”
According to Homan’s lawsuit, the county rejected Tirabassi’s request — first when then-budget Director Keith Dorsey declined in April 2019, saying Tirabassi had missed the window by many years.
Blades, who succeeded Dorsey in the position, later reviewed the decision “at the request of the county executive,” according to the lawsuit. He, too, determined that Tirabassi was not eligible for a service transfer and denied the request.
Tirabassi eventually took his case to the county’s Board of Appeals.
About six months later, the county law office withdrew its opposition to Tirabassi’s appeal, and Tirabassi dismissed the claim as a result of the two sides “entering into a confidential settlement agreement” that was never approved by the county employee retirement system’s Board of Trustees, the lawsuit states.
Homan in February filed a request for records related to the appeal and settlement, including notes from the budget office and minutes from the retirement Board of Trustees, according to his lawsuit.
Blades initially denied his request, saying all Employees Retirement System records were undisclosable.
After Homan followed up, a county attorney said in May that the county’s information technology office found more than 2,000 emails responsive to his request, the lawsuit states. Other documents also fell under the request.
The attorney requested $583.28 in fees to prepare the records, according to the lawsuit. Homan delivered a check for $2,000 “to avoid any further delay.”
But Homan has received only one document out of thousands that are responsive to his request, and county officials missed deadlines under the public-records law, the lawsuit alleges.
Homan’s attorney, Rig Baldwin V, said the refusal to release records points to a lack of transparency in the county administration, which Olszewski has called “the most open, accessible and transparent in Baltimore County’s history.”
Baldwin asserts in the lawsuit that the county can’t enter into a confidential settlement agreement “for the purpose of avoiding public scrutiny.”
As county administrative officer, Homan oversaw day-to-day county government operations.
He’s been described as the “chief architect” of county fiscal policy but clashed at times with employee groups and some County Council members over his decisions. After Olszewski was elected in 2018, he asked Homan to retire.
Homan worked for the county since the late 1970s, becoming county budget chief in 1989. He was named county administrative officer in 2006 under County Executive Jim Smith and served in that role under executives Kevin Kamenetz and Don Mohler.
When Kamenetz died in May 2018, Homan served as acting county executive for several weeks.