Former Howard official files $35 million lawsuit over his firing

June 15, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Former Howard County farmland preservation administrator John W. Musselman has sued the county, high-ranking current and former county officials and a zoning clerk for $35 million, saying the county violated his constitutional right to free speech when it fired him in 1992.

The 41-page suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore Friday, alleges he was dismissed because of his contacts with slow-growth advocates. It also accuses former County Planning and Zoning Director Uri Avin of "playing Nazi" with Mr. Musselman and slapping him across the face, "as part of a persistent and unrelentless campaign of intimidation, harassment and denigration" designed to get him to resign.

The suit does not name Mr. Avin as a defendant. Mr. Avin had no comment.

The suit alleges that Mr. Musselman was on a list of "difficult" employees that was given to Elizabeth Bobo "by key development interests" in the county before her election as county executive in 1986.

"The report was the start of what was to be a major purging of selected and normally top-level county employees through harassment, intimidation and other misuses of governmental power," the suit alleges.

Ms. Bobo, who could not be reached for comment, is not named as a defendant. County Executive Charles I. Ecker, Planning and Zoning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., former Economic Development Director Dyan Brasington and zoning clerk Sharon Mariaca are named.

The county fired Mr. Musselman after sending him an eight-page memorandum May 20, 1992, accusing him of filing odometer readings "totally inconsistent" with his expense reports, working short hours, undermining supervisors, misrepresenting facts to the public and being disrespectful of fellow employees.

In his suit seeking $10 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages, Mr. Musselman alleges that Ms. Brasington enticed Ms. Mariaca to spy on him and to attempt to entrap him into making "improper sexual advances."

Ms. Mariaca would not comment. Ms. Brasington has left the county and could not be reached. Mr. Ecker and Mr. Rutter said they were not at liberty to comment because the suit involves a personnel matter.

Most of the suit focuses on Mr. Musselman's tenure before the election of Mr. Ecker in 1990. It describes a series of deteriorating relationships that Mr. Musselman experienced with his bosses, beginning with the Bobo administration.

Her administration was cozy with developers, the suit alleges, while Mr. Musselman was openly friendly to a slow-growth lobby called Howard County Citizens for Responsible Growth.

Susan B. Gray of Highland, who attained prominence in the slow-growth lobby and became the Democratic Party's nominee for county executive last fall, is a partner in the Laurel law firm representing Mr. Musselman.

Although Mr. Musselman had "above average" performance ratings as chief of the Division of Zoning and Land Development, sources close to the development community told him in 1985 that he and two other high-ranking officials in the county Planning and Zoning Department would be fired when Ms. Bobo was elected, the suit alleges.

Mr. Musselman managed to hang on when Ms. Bobo was elected the next year but was subjected to verbal and physical abuse, the suit alleges. It accuses Mr. Avin of asking Mr. Musselman if he ever "played Nazi" and then slapping him "harshly across the face three times, each time yelling, 'Lies, lies, lies.' "

Later Mr. Musselman received a note from Mr. Avin signed "Der Fuhrer," according to the suit. Shortly afterward, Mr. Musselman was transferred from county headquarters to the farmland preservation office in West Friendship.

The suit also alleges that after Mr. Musselman was sent to West Friendship, Ms. Brasington and Mr. Rutter "began anew a campaign of misrepresenting facts and creating a 'fallacious' paper trail" against Mr. Musselman that ultimately led to his firing.

Mr. Musselman is requesting a jury trial.

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