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Worker sees prejudice in Arundel government

The Baltimore Sun

The Anne Arundel County official who filed a federal complaint accusing her supervisors of racial and sexual discrimination suggested yesterday that prejudice was systemic in other departments of the county government.

Rene C. Swafford, an African-American, said her former boss at the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corp. gave away her office and job duties to white employees and canceled her corporate credit card without warning. She also alleged that she had been passed over for a promotion, then demoted in favor of a white employee.

"Almost from the very beginning, I was met with racism and sexism," Swafford said at a news conference outside the county government headquarters in Annapolis, adding that complaints she lodged with county officials went nowhere. "To my knowledge, no other white employee had been subjected to this disparate treatment."

Swafford was hired a year ago and still serves as the deputy director of the quasi-public agency, which has about 25 employees and offers job training and placement services. She filed her federal complaint on company letterhead Tuesday with the state office of civil rights, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Maryland Human Relations Commission.

She also said several African-Americans who were appointed by County Executive John R. Leopold, who took office in December 2006, have since been reassigned to new positions or resigned because of their race. She named Wayne Taylor, former director of aging and disabilities, who resigned last August; Sheryl E. Banks, who replaced him and now serves as Leopold's special assistant for minority business development; and Yevola S. Peters, Leopold's special assistant for minority affairs. Previously, Peters served as the director of community and constituent services.

She also mentioned a $13.5 million lawsuit filed this year by Tahira Thomas, an African-American and former head of Animal Control, who alleged that she was fired in 2006 as a result of discrimination in previous years.

Swafford, an attorney and former Republican candidate for County Council, said she was "concerned" that other African-American employees "may be subject to the same kind of indifference that I experience." She stood next to a sign that read, "Discrimination is alive and well in Anne Arundel County."

But Taylor and Peters said they did not experience racism and took exception to being named by Swafford.

"I'm not privy to any form of racism in the Leopold administration. ... I don't know what she is talking about," said Taylor, who called his job a "fit that didn't work."

Peters said she suffered no discrimination and received a promotion. Banks did not return calls seeking comment.

In a statement, Leopold said that 18 percent of his 45 appointments are minorities and 62 percent are women

"Any allegations otherwise are baseless and unfortunate considering the inclusiveness of county government since I took office," he said.

County officials said they were caught off-guard by Swafford's accusations. Robert L. Hannon, president and acting executive director of the nonprofit agency, said he is planning to launch an investigation. He confirmed that Swafford's position had been taken out of the budget and that she had been offered a lower-paying job, but he said none of those changes were due to discrimination.

Most of Swafford's complaints center on her relationship with her former supervisor at the Workforce Development Corp., Douglas A. Burkhardt, a Republican Party fundraiser and former candidate for local office who was fired last month.

She said she was stranded in Cleveland on a business trip after Burkhardt canceled her corporate credit card without "explanation or apology," forcing her to borrow money to get home. She also said Burkhardt "unilaterally decided" to relocate her office to Glen Burnie and offered her old office in Millersville to a white employee, along with some of her duties.

In her letter to the state division of civil rights, Swafford said that she was supposed to be "next in line" to take over Burkhardt's job and resented Hannon taking over his duties. She also said that her position had been eliminated, renamed and offered to a white employee.

She said such policies were "designed to marginalize and embarrass me, personally and professionally."

Burkhardt did not return calls seeking comment, but Hannon said the decision not to promote Swafford was based solely on her leadership qualities.

"I think that Ms. Swafford is entitled to be disappointed, but I don't think there is any entitlement for her to be selected as the director of any agency," he said.

He also dismissed claims that the cancellation of her corporate card was discriminatory.

"Clearly there was some awkwardness in the way this was done, but it clearly does not rise to the level of discrimination," he said.

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