Kevin Kamenetz is a defendant in a lawsuit asking that the court compel the county executive to carry out a task required by county law.
But as of April 2, that lawsuit is likely moot, thanks to a bill amending the county’s ethics law passed by the County Council — at the request of the county executive’s office.
“It was a good amendment,” said Tom Peddicord, the council’s legal counsel and secretary. On that point, pretty much everyone agrees: council members, the county attorney — and even the plaintiff in the lawsuit, David Plymyer.
But when the council was considering the bill, County Attorney Michael Field, who requested the bill and then testified about it in a March 27 work session, did not tell council members about the lawsuit against Kamenetz pending in Circuit Court — a lawsuit that one section of the bill negated.
“I would have liked to receive that information,” Councilman David Marks said in an interview last week. “I would have liked to have known.”
Kamenetz is a defendant in the lawsuit entitled Plymyer vs Forman, et al, which Catonsville resident Plymyer filed after his complaint to the Baltimore County Ethics Commission was dismissed.
In July 2017, Plymyer, a retired County Attorney for Anne Arundel, asked the commission to investigate whether county administrative officer Fred Homan committed an ethics violation when he signed in 2015 a severance policy that he stood to benefit from. Homan could have received an $80,000 payout in addition to his pension upon leaving county government, The Baltimore Sun reported.
After that policy was made public last year, and shortly after Plymyer filed his complaint with the ethics commission, Kamenetz removed the administrative officer from the policy, then later scrapped the policy entirely.
Plymyer and ethics commission Chairman Jeff Forman both declined to name Homan or discuss the complaint due to the ethics commission's confidentiality laws, but the complaint was included as evidence in a public court filing.
Under county law, when the ethics commission receives a complaint against a county employee, the commission’s executive director must conduct an investigation and present a report to the commission to vote on. If the executive director has a conflict of interest, the county attorney can also conduct the investigation.
In the complaint against Homan, however, Plymyer requested that both Executive Director Elaine Katz and County Attorney Michael Field recuse themselves, because Homan supervises both of them.
The County Code mandated that the county executive create a list of lawyers or law firms every year to hire as outside counsel for the ethics commission in the event of conflicts of interest. But later, when Plymyer requested a copy of the list, Field told him in an email that no such list has existed for more than two decades.
The ethics commission decided to dismiss the complaint, saying that because Kamenetz scrapped the policy it had already been taken care of. Plymyer requested that the decision be brought before the county Board of Appeals, and Forman, as the chairman, denied the request.
Plymyer then filed his lawsuit, asking the judge to compel Forman to send the case to the Board of Appeals. The lawsuit also named Kamenetz, and requested that he be compelled to make the list of outside counsel for the ethics commission. Fields is representing both Forman and Kamenetz in the lawsuit.
Last week, the judge denied the county’s motion to dismiss the case.
A ‘housekeeping bill’
Field appeared at a March 27 work session to testify in support of Bill No. 12-18, calling the bill a “housekeeping” measure.
Field did not mention, in his testimony nor in the accompanying packet given to the council, that one section of the legislation would eliminate a law under which Kamenetz was currently being sued.
The work session came just three weeks after Field filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
Much of the bill, which amended the county ethics law, was required by the state. But Section 2 was not. That section removed the language in the county code — which Field called “very strange” during the work session – required the county executive to make a list of outside counsel for the ethics commission. The bill replaced that provision with a requirement that the county provide funds to the commission to hire outside counsel when it determines that it needs it.
Most of the bill took effect on the day it was enacted. But Section 2 was made retroactive to Jan. 1, 2017 — covering the year in which Plymyer's lawsuit accused Kamenetz of failing to draft a list.
Council Chairman Julian Jones introduced the bill at the request of the county executive, a common courtesy practice. Jones said that he was not aware of the lawsuit against Kamenetz until a reporter called last week to ask him about it.
Councilmen Tom Quirk and David Marks also said they were unaware of the lawsuit.
After a reporter called, Jones and Quirk both called council secretary and legal counsel Peddicord. Both councilmen said in interviews that Field had told Peddicord about the lawsuit.
“[Peddicord] knew about it, so it wasn’t something the administration was withholding,” Quirk said.
But in an email, Peddicord said that he knew that the existence of the list had been raised in an ethics-complaint proceeding. But, he said, “I was not aware when the bill was before the council that a Circuit Court action had been filed against the county executive.”
“Mr. Peddicord has just told me that I had not told him about the case in the circuit court,” Field wrote in an email Sunday. “I thought I had but, in any case, we used a bill that we were required to file to fix a problem in our law.”
Asked why the section was made retroactive to the beginning of 2017, Field wrote in an email, sent through county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler, that the obligation was annual, so he wanted to make it effective for the entire year. “It said 2017 because I had actually started working on it in 2017,” Field said.
A bill becomes law
Field argued in the March 27 work session that the list requirement has “never been workable anyway,” calling it a burden, and saying that no lawyer would agree to be on the list because it would have allowed the county to cancel its payment.
After Field spoke at the work session for nearly 15 minutes about the various technical aspects of the bill, including the list requirement, Jones, the chairman, joked to laughter from the council, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening. Can you start from the beginning?”
After a few questions from the council — none pertaining to the list requirement — Jones invited his colleagues to co-sponsor the bill. “I’d like to be added as well,” one said. “Ditto,” said another. “Me, too.” “We’re all about ethics.”
The bill passed on April 2 with every council member listed as a co-sponsor.
The enactment of the bill, Plymyer said, will make his lawsuit against Kamenetz moot.
“In my opinion, the change enacted by the Council … resolves that part of my Complaint seeking a writ of mandamus against County Executive Kamenetz,” Plymyer wrote in an email. “It does not resolve the remainder of the Complaint.”
Plymyer said he is satisfied with the outcome of the bill, saying that if the Board of Appeals hears his case and sends it back to the commission, they will now be able to get outside counsel to investigate his complaint.
"That problem is fixed,” he said.
Last week, asked whether he would have liked to have known about the lawsuit, Jones said, “I don’t know enough about it.”
He added later, "I guess for me, I would have to have had an awful lot of additional information to determine whether or not the information would’ve made a difference.”
"I think it’s immaterial,” Quirk said in an interview. “Would it have been nice to know? Sure. But it wouldn’t have affected how I voted on it.”