Episcopal Church officials are considering whether the Rev. Heather Elizabeth Cook — now facing criminal charges in connection with a drunken driving accident that killed a bicyclist in December — may have lied about her struggles with alcohol to smooth her path to election as the No. 2 bishop in the Diocese of Maryland last year.
In a written notice to Cook made public this week, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said church investigators have received information about "misrepresentations" regarding her "experience with alcohol" that she allegedly made in connection with her candidacy for bishop suffragan.
That information is cited as one reason church officials acted this week to formally restrict Cook from acting as a member of the clergy.
In a case that has roiled the national church and sparked controversy about how it elects its bishops, the mention of "misrepresentations" marks the first time officials have raised the possibility Cook lied during the search process for bishop suffragan, the second-ranking official in a diocese.
According to the notice from Schori, the church is looking at whether Cook gave false information to her former employer, the Diocese of Easton, about her history with alcohol as the Maryland diocese conducted background searches on its final three final candidates. The national church is conducting an investigation that could lead to disciplinary action against Cook.
The church ordained Cook a bishop last September even though a search committee for the diocese was aware she had been arrested on a DUI charge in Caroline County four years earlier. The committee, deciding it was a "one-time mistake," chose to leave it up to Cook to tell her electors of the incident. Cook did so only in vague terms, church officials have said.
Less than four months after being installed as bishop, Cook was charged with manslaughter, drunken driving, texting while driving, and leaving the scene of an accident in connection with the crash that killed Thomas Palermo, a 41-year-old father of two, as he rode his bicycle on Roland Avenue in North Baltimore on Dec. 27.
The church has declined to comment on Schori's written notice to Cook, citing confidentiality concerns.
Cook is free on $2.5 million bail. The Maryland diocese has asked that she resign, but she has not responded to the request. Her attorney, David Irwin, has declined to comment.
The Maryland diocese has said church officials in Easton recommended Cook "without reservation." Cook served as canon to the ordinary, or assistant to the bishop, there for a decade.
The Easton diocese has declined to comment on her case. But the Rev. Nathaniel Pierce, a retired priest who worked in the diocese during Cook's tenure, insisted Thursday that no one in the diocese was aware of her 2010 arrest or of any problems with alcohol.
A local newspaper ran a short article on the arrest five days after it happened and identified Cook by name, though it did not mention her occupation or religious title.
The 166-word article in the Easton Star-Democrat, which ran on Sept. 15, 2010, noted that Cook's "blood alcohol level registered at .27, more than three times the legal limit in Maryland."
It also said "deputies found that the front passenger tire of her car was shredded and had fallen off the rim."
"This is a bizarre element to this whole tragic story," said Pierce, a volunteer at the diocese office. "Usually the gossip circuit in the Episcopal Church picks up on stuff like that. But I don't know one person in the diocese who says, 'I remember reading that story.'"
"I'm sure the average reader of news stories thinks we all knew about it and conspired to keep it a secret," said Pierce, the former rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Cambridge. "If any of us had known about it, not only would we have been anxious to take part in her process of recovery, but we would have put it out front when she became a candidate for suffragan bishop of Maryland."
Pierce called Cook a gifted minister, which he described as a tragic element of her story.
Dan Webster, a spokesman for the Maryland diocese, said church officials in Easton did recommend Cook strongly during the search process.
Webster said the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, bishop of the Maryland diocese, stressed that point at a forum Wednesday night, telling an audience at a church in Lothian that the diocese had received only "stellar recommendations" for Cook.
Later, the diocese's search committee learned of the 2010 arrest, Webster said, but it never learned the details of the case, including her elevated blood-alcohol level, the fact she had marijuana paraphernalia in her car and that she was driving on a shredded tire.
"All of that information The Sun and other outlets have uncovered, that never came before the search committee," Webster said.
A spokeswoman for the Caroline County sheriff's office said members of the public can request copies of the police reports at any time and the department has 30 days to respond.
Sheriff's department officials can choose how much to release, said Dawn Cordrey, a management associate, but when about 20 news outlets sought information after Cook's crash in December, the department released everything it had.
"That's how the information is out there now," she said.