Baltimore County appears to have won another battle but lost the war in its three-year campaign to gag George W. Murphy. For his part, Murphy is still talking but it's going to cost him $5,000.
Soon after the long fight between Murphy and Baltimore County government ended recently with Murphy accepting a $5,000 settlement, a new controversy arose.
Yesterday, Murphy, who called reporters last week to announce the settlement, found that an assistant county attorney had ordered a "stop payment" on the settlement check because Murphy apparently violated the confidentiality clause in the agreement.
"Apparently, they believed they had an absolute gag order on me," said Murphy. "I just didn't believe I had violated the settlement. I've got a clear conscience."
Murphy, an 11-year county employee who is maintenance supervisor at Diamond Ridge Golf Course in Woodlawn, said he was surprised by the county's action because on Monday, Deputy County Attorney Arnold Jablon indicated to him the county would not invoke the confidentiality clause.
Jablon said then that although he believed Murphy had violated the agreement, he didn't believe it was worth further legal hassles to try to take back the $5,000.
Murphy says Jablon also indicated to him on Monday that the county would not take back the money.
"I saw Arnold at the council meeting," said Murphy. "I said to him, 'Do you want the money back?' And he shook his head no. I guess he changed his mind."
H. Emslie Parks, the new county attorney, confirmed yesterday that his assistant, Thomas Farley, had canceled the settlement check because of a breach of the agreement.
"Apparently," said Parks, "when that settlement was reached, there was a confidentiality agreement signed by Mr. Murphy. . . . Mr. Murphy very promptly violated the agreement by calling the press."
The settlement was signed last Thursday, Murphy called reporters late Friday afternoon and Murphy's account of the settlement was confirmed Monday.
Parks, who said he was not consulted on the decision to cancel the check, said he was going to review the file to see if he agrees with the action.
"I'm comfortable with the decision at the moment," he said. But "I want to review all the material before I say I'm totally comfortable with it."
Meanwhile, Murphy said his lawyer, Jeffrey Nesson, told him there's little that can be done.
Asked what he could do, Murphy replied, "I could sell my car to settle my legal debts, then walk to work with my head up high."
Murphy's troubles began in March 1988, shortly after he reported the county to the Army Corps of Engineers for digging a trench next to a trout stream at Oregon Ridge Park. Murphy feared that a heavy rainstorm could choke the sensitive stream with mud.
After that episode, Murphy was formally reprimanded for breaching a Department of Recreation and Parks policy that required him to get permission before talking to the press or outside agencies.
Complaining that the policy unfairly attempted to curb his right to free speech, Murphy filed suit in November 1988. He also sought to have the county's whistle-blower law upheld.
The policy was struck down last summer by then-County Administrative Officer Frank Robey, but Murphy renewed his lawsuit to recoup attorney's fees.
In February, Circuit Court Judge Leonard S. Jacobson dismissed Murphy's suit without a hearing. Nesson had asked the judge to reverse his decision and hold a hearing when the settlement was reached.