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County worker who admitted arrest for drugs claims unfairness in firing WEST COUNTY--Crofton * Odenton * Fort Meade * Gambrills


When Thomas Gatton told his supervisor in the county Utilities Department in October that he had been arrested for drug distribution and admitted to needing help, he expected anything could happen except what actually did.

Within a week, he was fired. He hasn't worked since.

After being arrested, "I went to them the next day and told them everything," he said. "They suspended me for five days and then fired me. All before I went to trial."

Mr. Gatton's problems began Oct. 26 when officers arrived at his Odenton home and served him with an arrest warrant, charging him with selling $20 worth of marijuana to an undercover officer the month before.

On Dec. 28, Mr. Gatton, 33, pleaded guilty to distribution of marijuana and was given six months of unsupervised probation.

Mr. Gatton, a nine-year county employee in charge of a sewage cleaning crew, said he had a good work record and complained he was treated unfairly by being fired before his trial.

"If I hadn't said anything, I probably would still have a job," he said. "I didn't lie and I always told the truth."

Telling the truth is what cost him his job, he said.

Not quite, says Michael J. Milanowski, county director of employee and labor relations. Even if he hadn't come forward, county officials would have found out.

"Police records are public information," Mr. Milanowski said.

Although the county's drug policy allows an employee to ask for help with a drug problem without fear of disciplinary action, Mr. Milanowski said the line is drawn at drug distribution.

"If this had been a situation where he admitted to use, then he would have received help without disciplinary action," he said.

Mr. Gatton, who lives in Odenton with his two daughters, said he believes county officials are operating under a double standard. In 1989, he said, two county officials were arrested for growing and using marijuana and immediately confessed to former county executive O. James Lighthizer. They were allowed to keep their jobs.

In a plea bargain, former public information officer Denise Rankin and former controller Joseph Burrows were found guilty only of possession, despite the fact that 15 plants were found growing outside their home in Caroline County and marijuana was found in their closet. They were suspended for a month and fined $5,000.

Louise Hayman, spokeswoman for County Executive Robert Neall, said if that had happened today, they would have been fired because of the number of plants found in the closet.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gatton said he has completed a drug treatment program and is appealing the decision to the county Personnel Board.

Marvin Redding, president of the union that represents Mr. Gatton, decried double standards.

"By no means do we condone drug use or sale," he said. "But we do expect the same treatment for all employees. If you are going to do it for one, you should do it for all."

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