Probe of Howard courthouse 'breach of security' sought by state senator

Jess Nocera
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

A state senator is asking the Howard County Circuit Court to address what the sheriff’s office is labeling a security breach after a group entered the courthouse after hours using an elected official’s access card.

On Sunday, Sept. 30, during non-business hours, a sheriff’s deputy found the group at the inside entrance of the courthouse as he was conducting routine checks, according to a statement from Sheriff Bill McMahon.

The group of 15 to 20 people had filming equipment, according to Maj. Doug Knott, deputy chief of the sheriff’s office.

“Our concern is what was the purpose of the filming equipment,” Knott said.

While the group entered into the building with an elected official’s access card, the official was not present, according to McMahon.

“The elected official was Mr. [Byron] Macfarlane,” McMahon said in a statement.

Macfarlane is the county’s register of wills. Macfarlane, a Democrat, is seeking re-election in Tuesday’s general election. He has held the position since 2010.

“The timing of this allegation is highly suspect,” Macfarlane said in a statement. “We are just days before an election and this appears to be politically motivated. I cannot comment further except to say this simple matter has been fully resolved by courthouse leadership.”

State Sen. Gail Bates, who represents parts of Howard and Carroll counties, mailed a letter to Howard County Circuit Court Administrative Judge William V. Tucker on Oct. 29, expressing her concern.

“I am deeply concerned by this breach of security at a state building in my district,” Bates wrote in the letter.

Bates and McMahon, both Republicans, are seeking re-election.

Bates said she wrote the letter to Tucker after being approached by a constituent who was seeking answers.

She wrote “in addition to the obvious danger unauthorized individuals could pose to the physical security of the courthouse,” the individuals could have gained access to court files and other sensitive materials and tampered with them.

Five questions to Tucker were included in the letter. Bates has not received a reply.

The questions include:

*If an investigation has occurred, and if not, will one happen?

*Do state laws exist prohibiting individuals with courthouse access cards to provide them to others to gain entry into the building after hours?

*What actions can the chief administrative judge take against an individual who provide their access card and allows people into the courthouse after hours?

*If there are existing laws or administrative actions, are such laws or actions applied equally to elected officials as other courthouse employees?

*Why was the public not informed of the Sept. 30 incident? Bates wrote the incident did not become public knowledge until after a citizen questioned the sheriff’s office.

Bates said she hopes to receive a response to her letter, saying she wrote it “to find out what’s going on.”

“The incident, while not a criminal matter, represented a breach of security,” McMahon said in a statement.

Under Maryland law, it is illegal to use an ID or card for an unauthorized use and it’s against the law to assist an unauthorized person in using the card or badge. If a person is found guilty of a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty is up to 90 days imprisonment and $500 fine.

“This statue was recently brought to my attention,” Knott said in an email. “I do not believe that it is applicable to the incident in question.”

Shawn Conley, the Republican candidate for register of wills, spoke about the incident in a Facebook post last week, saying he was “gravely concerned to hear of this serious breach of security.”

“This act shows a serious and continued lack of judgment by Mr. Macfarlane,” Conley said in a Facebook post. “The degree of risk resulting from this latest irresponsible act is of extreme concern, regarding not only the safety of the courthouse, its employees, public officials and community members, but the sanctity of the countless courthouse records.”

The group appeared to only be in the lobby and in Macfarlane's office and nothing inside the courthouse “appeared to be disturbed,” according to McMahon.

The sheriff's office reported the incident to the Tucker and the administrative office of the circuit court is aware of the incident, McMahon said in his statement.

Tucker is referring all questions regarding the incident to the Maryland Judiciary.

The Maryland Judiciary does not comment on administrative or security matters, Nadine Maeser, a spokeswoman, said in an email.

“It was a significant breach [of security],” Knott said. “He [Macfarlane] gave out his access card and he wasn’t there.”

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