Photocopies case becomes counties spat Carroll prosecutor seeks state help to audit Howard agency

'I question the outcomes'

Howard clerk's office demands that Carroll explain plea bargain

July 18, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The case of 19,000 photocopies illegally made in the Howard County clerk's office last winter has turned into an intercounty spat between officials in Howard and Carroll counties.

The state's attorney's office in Carroll County is asking for state assistance in auditing the Howard clerk's office, while that office is demanding an explanation for a plea bargain arranged by a Carroll prosecutor.

The dispute began last month when Ellicott City title researcher and attorney Melvin Gary Rybczynski quietly pleaded no contest to misdemeanor theft in a Carroll County District Court for ringing up $4,800 in photocopies for his business by using a state-owned debit card.

Now Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes has asked the attorney general's office -- which represents such state agencies as his and the Howard clerk's office -- for aid in an audit of the clerk's office. "We feel a more extensive investigation should occur," Barnes said.

His announcement comes as Howard County Clerk Margaret Rappaport is criticizing the Carroll County office for its handling of the Rybczynski case.

The audit request "just clouds the issue about what this was really meant to be. Questions weren't answered that I had asked," Rappaport said.

"You can audit me anyhow you want to. I have no qualms about that."

The case also has spurred additional fallout. The Carroll prosecutor who handled the matter reportedly is in hot water.

And Rybczynski -- the lawyer who pleaded no contest to stealing the copies -- could face an investigation by the Attorney Grievance Commission that could lead to suspension of his license.

The controversy started after the cases against Rybczynski and his three employees -- daughters Lisa and Jennifer Rybczynski and Patricia Bridner, who is married to an employee of the clerk's office -- were swiftly and quietly handled in Carroll County.

They were arrested after an undercover police officer -- who staked out the copy room for three days in February -- caught Rybczynski making copies with a card issued to a clerk's office supervisor.

Rybczynski and his employees had been using the card for six months, tallying $4,800 in copy costs at 25 cents a copy, according to a charging document.

The card -- which is supposed to be used only by court employees -- was signed out to Jeff Bridner, a land records supervisor and husband of Rybczynski's employee. He was not charged and still is working in the clerk's office.

Last spring, the Carroll County state's attorney's office had been asked to handle the case for Howard County prosecutors because Patricia Bridner also is the sister-in-law of an employee of the Howard state's attorney's office -- and prosecutors wanted to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.

All four cases were to go to trial in Howard County June 18 with a visiting judge and a special prosecutor from Carroll County.

But on June 5, the cases were moved to Carroll and heard in court the next day. A motion filed by the prosecutors cited scheduling conflicts with the later date.

Rybczynski -- who had been charged with three felonies carrying maximum sentences of 15 years in prison as well as two misdemeanors -- pleaded no contest to misdemeanor theft charges as part of a plea agreement. The remaining charges were placed on the inactive docket, Barnes said.

The three cases against his employees also were placed on the inactive docket -- meaning they are unlikely to go to trial and will be dismissed if there are no other violations within a year.

Neither the police who investigated the theft nor Rappaport was notified of the plea agreement or the court hearing, as is the common practice, officials in both counties said.

Howard State's Attorney Marna McLendon said she was concerned by the quick relocation of the cases and the fact the victims were not told of the agreement.

"I don't know enough to say there was wrongdoing," McLendon said. "I trust Mr. Barnes will be looking into that."

Barnes said he had addressed the lack of communication "in the most aggressive way I can."

The prosecutor, Shawn Larson, who used to work in the Howard County state's attorney's office, is rumored to have been fired, but Barnes refused to confirm that.

Barnes insisted there had been no wrongdoing. "A lot of prosecutors would have taken the same plea because they would have felt that restitution was a key matter," he said. A restitution and sentencing hearing is scheduled Oct. 8 in Howard County.

"We will do our very best to secure every penny of restitution we can," Barnes said.

Joseph Fleischmann, attorney for the Rybczynskis, said the defense had a strong case and he had planned to take it to trial.

"I think Mr. Lawson did an outstanding job to get me to plead to anything," he said.

Rappaport -- who has communicated with the Carroll state's attorney's office -- said she wants to know why she never was told about the plea agreement.

"I question the outcomes," she said. "I want to know when, why and how this happened."

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