City labor commissioner fighting for his reputation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It seems only fitting that Sean R. Malone, Baltimore's labor commissioner, would be an avid fan of boxing.

Malone's Cabinet-level post in the O'Malley administration pits him against city unions in an array of labor disputes. But most of those battles are waged in bare-knuckled, behind-the-scenes bargaining sessions akin to amateur fights.

Today Malone has been pulled into two big-ticket public battles that many say have been instigated because of his allegiance to Mayor Martin O'Malley and his bad relations with former police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark.

The negative publicity has been a blow to Malone's otherwise glowing City Hall reputation. Even his most frequent adversaries - union leaders - say Malone is being sucker-punched by Clark's accusation last month that the labor commissioner misused a city-owned computer. Now a number of black police officers who filed a class action lawsuit last week against the city say Malone conducted racist disciplinary hearings while he was a Police Department attorney.

Still, Malone has only himself to blame for the most embarrassing revelation highlighted in both public flaps: that his city-owned laptop computer contained pornography. Knowledge of such "graphic material" was obtained during a police examination of the city computer after it had been recovered during an investigation of an Oct. 7 burglary of Malone's house.

Union, city and police officials believe Clark overstepped his authority with the search and that he is trying to exact revenge on Malone, a former senior police official who was a vocal critic of Clark, by attempting to tarnish his reputation.

Despite the allegations, Malone holds a comfortable spot on the red carpet coattails of O'Malley, a position he's ridden from a job tending bar 10 years ago to a place in the upper echelons of City Hall today. O'Malley, Malone's political patron during that rise, is standing behind his longtime political partisan.

"Sean has done an exemplary job as labor commissioner," Raquel Guillory, an O'Malley spokeswoman, said recently. "There's no plans to ask him to step down."

A 'red herring'

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler dismissed the notion that Clark's allegation needed further examination. Tyler called it a "red herring" meant to distract attention from Clark's otherwise "meritless" lawsuit seeking millions of dollars in damages.

"We are not intending to pursue the matter," Tyler said. "Mr. Malone has been reminded of the proper use of city computers, and I'm confident there will be no recurrence" of improper materials being viewed.

Stephan G. Fugate, president of the city's fire officers union and a frequent O'Malley critic, said he supports Malone and that he believes Clark is trying to embarrass the labor commissioner.

"I think the whole thing is a setup," Fugate said.

But Fugate also said the city should at least consider examining the city's electronic communications policy to see if Malone violated it.

The central assertion in Clark's lawsuit is that he was fired Nov. 10 because his internal affairs officials met with federal prosecutors to get assistance in investigating Malone, who is not named in the lawsuit, two days earlier. O'Malley said Clark had been aware of his impending ouster since Nov. 5. The implication of O'Malley's assertion is that Clark pursued a criminal probe against Malone in retaliation for being asked to step down.

"Mr. Malone is not a suspect," said Tyler, who said he has reviewed the city's electronic communications policy. "He's the victim of a house robbery.

"It's pretty clear that what was done here [by Clark] was totally inappropriate and inconsistent with the most basic notions of privacy and constitutional rights," Tyler said of the search of Malone's city-owned computer.

Clark's lead attorney, Stuart O. Simms, said Clark's actions as commissioner were lawful.

In an interview with The Sun last month, Malone did not specifically discuss what was on his computer. He said he only used the laptop at home. Such personal use, he said, does not constitute official use under the city's policy because the device was never hooked into the city's network.

"I leave it to the mayor's office if there's been a violation of the [city's electronic communications policy]," Malone said.

Administration officials agree that Malone's situation with the computer he kept at home was far different from other incidents that have occurred in city offices. Police officials also said that the standard procedure for searching a computer permits only a review of the device's activity during the days it was missing. The search authorized by Clark went beyond those procedures, officials said.

"When [Clark] had the opportunity, he took it," Malone said.

Malone said it was up to the mayor to determine the merits of Clark's claims.

"I work for the mayor," Malone said. "I'm here to serve him."

Malone's rise

Malone first served O'Malley by serving him a beer.

Malone, now 38, met O'Malley 10 years ago at the Charles Street pub McGinn's, which is now Mick O'Shea's. Malone was a bartender with two degrees - a bachelor's in political science and a master's in public administration. He worked at the bar while studying law at the University of Baltimore School of Law. O'Malley was the city councilman whose Celtic rock band was the only performance that kept tips healthy at McGinn's, Malone said.

The two became friends, and a year later O'Malley appointed Malone to manage his successful 1995 council re-election campaign. Malone finished law school three years later and became an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County.

In 1999, Malone's prosecutorial background landed him a prominent role after O'Malley won his long-shot bid for mayor. O'Malley appointed Malone to co-chair his public safety transition committee, which recommended the hiring of the mayor's first two police commissioners.

In January 2000, Malone was placed in the city solicitor's office and assigned as the Police Department's chief legal counsel. Two years later he was named the department's chief of professional standards and, nearly a year later, of special projects. He quickly built a reputation for having a mind as sharp as his quick-witted tongue - and for being a reliable authority on police matters to O'Malley.

Malone maintained his political expertise as well by helping to organize volunteers for O'Malley's primary election campaign last year. His frontline involvement led him to wear an O'Malley T-shirt and wave a banner on a median dividing North Avenue before an August 2003 debate.

"Sean is incredibly intelligent and thinks on his feet, and he's not someone you want to get into an argument with without having your facts straight," said Kristen M. Mahoney, director of the mayor's office on criminal justice.

Dan Fickus, former president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3, said Malone was instrumental in helping the department eliminate an extensive backlog of personnel and internal affairs hearings. Fickus said that Malone often clashed with Clark over his ousting of top commanders, a primary catalyst for the meltdown between O'Malley and Clark this year.

A class action lawsuit was filed last week by 21 current and former police officers who claim they have endured persistent and oppressive racism. Part of those allegations of racism point to Malone's tenure at the Police Department. They claim he frequently reversed sustained charges against white police department members or reduced their penalties. The lawsuit also cites as an example of racism O'Malley's firing of Clark, who is black.

Malone did not comment on the class action lawsuit. He said he left the Police Department last year after realizing he and Clark could no longer work together. The job of labor commissioner opened, and O'Malley appointed him to it in September 2003.

Reputation for fairness

Malone quickly built a reputation of being fair and honest in negotiations with the city's five unions - especially with the local FOP and its conflicts with Clark.

"He sticks to his word," said Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of AFSCME Local 44. Middleton and Malone quickly bonded over their common passion for the sport of boxing, and the union leader gave Malone tickets to a boxing match. "I know nothing negative about Sean."

Said Richard G. Schluderberg, president of the city firefighters union: "It takes a while to build trust between union officials and the labor commissioner, and he's done it."

Malone said he was pleased to hear of the support he has gotten throughout city government. He said he believed he will survive the legal battles - especially Clark's allegation.

"There's nothing on that computer that I believe can be used," Malone said. "He could try to embarrass me. Well, he's already done that."

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