Soon after Baltimore Sheriff John W. Anderson hired his girlfriend and future wife as a $24,000-a-year secretary in 1998, she had back surgery and stayed home for two months. Although she quickly exhausted her sick leave, the paychecks kept coming.
And the paychecks kept coming when Donna Gilchrist Anderson took three more months of sick leave last year - and when she worked part time for more than a month, records show.
Anderson says he has done nothing wrong in his hiring or in the handling of Donna Anderson's sick leave. He and his wife say three employees, who owe their jobs to Anderson, voluntarily donated more than 120 sick days to Donna so she could take time off.
Anderson said his wife is treated just like everybody else. Other employees have donated sick time to each other, he said.
"She gets cut no breaks," Anderson said. "If she screws up, I'll fire her as fast as I fire anybody else. When she is here during the day, she is Donna Anderson - employee."
But city Comptroller Joan Pratt is examining the apparent special treatment of Donna Anderson, which might have violated state personnel and ethics laws.
What Pratt terms an "audit" of the sheriff's office began at the recommendation of State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli. He investigated unrelated allegations involving grant spending, and instead turned up questions about Donna Anderson's sick leave, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
In addition, six other relatives, close friends or children of friends of Anderson and his second in command, Col. G. Wayne Cox, are on the sheriff's payroll:
The husband of Anderson's niece is a deputy sheriff trainee earning $27,592. He got the position in April 1998. Brian Brummitt, who Anderson said began as a court security officer, declined to comment.
Anderson lavished praise on Brummitt. "If he had 10 more brothers and sisters or cousins, uncles or people who he went to school with, based on what I've seen of this young man, I'd go out and recruit them personally myself."
The maid of honor at Anderson's December 1998 wedding to Donna Gilchrist is a deputy sheriff trainee earning $26,579. She was hired six months before the nuptials as a court security officer, Anderson said. Tamara Purnell did not return repeated phone calls.
"She is one of the best employees we have around here," Anderson said.
The wife of the pastor at Donna Anderson's father's church, John Wesley AME Church in East Baltimore, was hired as a secretary in August and is receiving $25,293. Anderson called her a "heck of an asset."
In an interview, Althea Bell said her relationship to the sheriff meant nothing. "My process was no different than anyone else's. I just happen to know the sheriff," Bell said.
The daughter of state Sen. Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore was hired in August 1997. She is a court security officer earning $23,640. Anderson said he is a close friend of her father.
Jacqueline Conway, who is listed as a court security officer, said she works as a clerk. Asked about her father's friendship with Anderson, she replied: "What does that have to do with me working here?" She declined to answer further questions.
The brother of state Sen. Ralph Hughes of Baltimore was given a job in 1993 because Anderson said he had "respect and admiration" for their father. Michael Hughes is a clerical assistant earning $22,974. He declined to answer questions about his job.
The daughter of Cox was hired as a court security officer with annual pay of $22,757 in September 1999, just months after Cox was promoted to chief deputy, the No. 2 position in the office. Amanda Cox declined to comment.
Anderson, 53, earns $64,000 and has been elected three times since being appointed sheriff in 1989. His 134 employees are based in the Circuit Court buildings on Calvert Street and are responsible for serving warrants, summonses and foreclosure notices, as well as providing security for all five city courthouses.
At sheriff's 'pleasure'
More than half the jobs are civil service positions with the state - such as deputy sheriff - that require employees to pass certain tests. There are about 45 patronage appointees - such as secretaries and court security officers - who serve "at the pleasure" of the sheriff. Basic requirements for a court security position are having a high school diploma, or a GED, and being a U.S. resident, Anderson said.
All people hired for deputy sheriff and court security positions must go through a certified police academy. The difference between them is that court security officers can start work immediately, because they don't have to pass a state entrance exam like the deputies. They can also work without going through a police academy, if they are placed in a position that does not require carrying a gun, such as checking bags at the courthouse doors, said Michael E. Davey, lawyer for the Fraternal Order of Police lodge that represents the sheriff's deputies.
After attending the academy, the court security officers can make arrests only within the courthouse, while the deputies have full police powers, Davey said.
State and city ethics officials say the law doesn't prohibit Anderson or his top deputy from hiring relatives or friends. State personnel and ethics law requires only that he and Cox not supervise their kin, nor interview them for employment or take part in decision making about their job positions.
"You basically couldn't participate in matters involving [your wife]," said John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission.
The state ethics laws are designed to prevent any conflict of interest in government affairs, but they also stress the importance of avoiding the "appearance" of a conflict, said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.
Skullney said that when people ask the sheriff for jobs as he described, he should tell them no.
"His obligation is to the public he serves, not to his family or friends," Skullney said. "The public should never wonder why the decision of a public official, his appointees or his employees is being made, and when you have hired your friends, your in-laws, your associates, what you're doing is channeling funds into a [tight] circle. That immediately raises questions."
Doing a public service
Anderson scoffs at such criticisms. He says that he tries to help people by giving them jobs. He says he doesn't interview them or order that they be hired.
All are qualified, he says, and in his mind, he's performing a public service.
Anderson acknowledged hiring Donna Gilchrist, now 43, in April 1998, a month after they signed a lease together on a 25th Street apartment, and eight months before their marriage. But, he said, there is nothing wrong with that.
"When I go into a social event, one of the first things people ask me is, 'Got any jobs down there, sheriff?' What am I supposed to say? 'No'?" Anderson asked. "I say, 'Sure, you want to apply? ... Go ahead and apply.'"
He continued: "Suppose I told somebody, 'Yeah, I got [jobs], but you need not apply because you're my friend or you're this person's friend.'"
Anderson explained why he hired Althea Bell, the wife of the pastor at Donna Anderson's father's church, this way: "I'm in a church, talking to a minister, a young minister, whose wife just got to town. There is only one income coming in the house. She's asking about employment opportunities here in the city. I know I have possibly a job coming open. What do I do? Do I be a nasty guy again? Do I say, 'Oh no. I can't hire her' ... I made an offer. It just came out. I said, 'Well, I may be having something clerical coming up. Give me your resume.'"
Asked why he hired Tamara Purnell, the maid of honor at his wedding to Donna, he answered: "Sure, she knew my wife, she was the maid of honor, [I] gave her a job," he said. But then he added, "I didn't give her a job per se. She was offered a position. ... She had to go through the same screening process" that everyone else does.
But the odds seem stacked against anyone seeking a job who does not know Anderson. He outlined his hiring process this way: He tells anyone who asks him for a job to call Rita Schiff, his secretary. When the prospective hire calls, Schiff asks Anderson if she can give out an application.
Schiff will "come in and say, 'Did you tell somebody to call me?' and I'll say, 'Yes, I did. They asked for an application,'" Anderson said. "Rita will say, 'OK, boss, because I don't give out none of these applications ... unless you say so.'"
Once the application is filled out, the administrative officer will likely review it, see if a position is available, and top officials, such as Cox or Major Henry Martin, will interview the candidate, Anderson said. A background check is performed, and if all goes well, the person is hired.
Not long before Donna Anderson was hired by the sheriff's office, she retired from the Navy as a cook because of injuries to her back. She has received a portion of her Navy paycheck as disability compensation every month since July 1997.
During her first 18 months in the sheriff's office, she had to go on two extended sick leaves because of back problems, John Anderson said. Since she did not have enough time accrued, three of the sheriff's employees voluntarily donated more than 120 days of their sick leave to her, he said.
With donated time and some of her own leave time, Anderson took all but about three weeks off between July 9 and Sept. 22 in 1998.
The next summer, Anderson did not work at all for more than three months, from June 2 to Sept. 13, sheriff's office records show.
One employee, who serves at the pleasure of the sheriff, gave Donna Anderson half the sick days she had saved up during the past 10 years, according to office records. Geneva Freeman gave Donna Anderson 45 of her 91 days. Freeman later got back 18.5 days of her sick time.
Employees covered by the state retirement system do not receive a cash payment for unused sick leave when they retire. Instead, unused sick leave increases the monthly benefit that a pensioner receives, state retirement officials said.
No pressure to help
Freeman said in an interview that she did not feel pressure to donate her sick leave to her boss' wife. "That didn't make a difference at all," Freeman said. "If it had been anybody else, I would have donated it as well."
Donna Anderson also worked part-time but was paid for full-time work, according to payroll documents and legal records arising out of a personal injury lawsuit she filed last fall after slipping on ice in January.
"The patient has been working now for several weeks as part-time," an October 1998 note from Dr. Agha S. Khan, her doctor, says.
In March of this year, Donna Anderson said in a sworn document as part of the lawsuit that she worked part-time for three weeks in September 1999.
"Plaintiff lost three months - June 2, 1999 to September 13, 1999, returning as part-time for three weeks," the legal records state.
The sheriff said he knew nothing about his wife's working part-time, though a doctor's note recommending part-time work is in Donna Anderson's file at the sheriff's office.
"The only thing that I know is that when she came back to work, she came back to work," Anderson said, despite his wife's and her doctor's contentions in the lawsuit. "She was here working."
Donna Anderson acknowledged in an interview that she worked part-time for a period after she returned from recuperating from her first surgery in September 1998. But, she said, she often worked more than a half-day. After returning from the second surgery in September 1999, she said, although her doctor recommended that she work two weeks part-time, she worked a full 8-hour shift.
"It never really was part-time," she said. "I never left until 1 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon."
After the brief interview, she then summoned her supervisor, Lt. James Harris, who confirmed her account. She also said she worked from home while out sick.
When she first needed time for sick leave, Anderson sought ways to help his wife, according to a former top sheriff's official. That's a possible violation of ethics rules.
Under the law, public officials who employ their spouses are prohibited from getting involved in matters involving the spouse's employment.
'Do what you can do'
Former Chief Deputy David DeAngelis said that in the spring of 1998, Anderson discussed with him how to help his wife. "Basically, he said, 'Do what you can do. I appreciate what you can do,'" DeAngelis said.
First, DeAngelis planned to donate his sick leave time to her, but then he found out he could not because he is a state employee and Donna Anderson works for the city. He told the sheriff. "Well, what can we do?" he remembers the sheriff saying.
DeAngelis, who retired last year because of tensions with the sheriff, said he decided to let her borrow against her vacation time.
But in January of this year, months after DeAngelis had left, a letter from Donna Anderson's supervisor was placed in office records. The letter said that he had overheard DeAngelis say two years ago that he would give her 39 of his own sick days.
That letter suggests a violation of personnel law. Andrea M. Fulton, executive director of the state's Personnel Services and Benefits, said state employees can donate their sick leave only to other state employees, not city workers. "There is nothing in the state personnel law ... that would allow that to happen," Fulton said.
The sheriff's office has both state and city employees because it's considered a hybrid agency. The sheriff is a state elected official, but his budget is largely controlled by the city. The sick leave donations to Donna Anderson by Geneva Freeman and the other officer do not appear to violate personnel law because both at the time, like Donna Anderson, were employed by the city.
The sheriff insists that he did not intervene in matters involving his wife's sick time. "I didn't get involved in it," Anderson said. "I knew what it would look like, and I didn't get involved in it."
Anderson's attorney, Frank D. Boston III, said the sheriff had a meeting with DeAngelis and other top officials during which his wife's sick leave was discussed. Boston said the subject was raised because an official in the room told Anderson that his wife did not have enough leave to cover her time off. But Boston said Anderson does not remember telling DeAngelis to "do what you can do."
Anderson "can't recall saying it, but if it was said, it would have been in the same context as for any other employee," Boston said.
According to Boston, Anderson "absolutely does not ever recall" DeAngelis informing the sheriff that it was against personnel law to donate his sick leave, as a state employee, to Donna Anderson.
In an interview, Anderson said, "The man told me, 'I am giving her some of my time.'"