Oakland Mills coach sues for access to documents

Papers sought for appeal in grade-changing case

Howard County

May 13, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

A high school football coach who could be fired as the result of a grade-changing scandal appeared before a Howard County circuit judge yesterday to argue for the release of papers he said he needs to retain his job.

"These documents are critical," said Thomas R. Bundy III, attorney for Oakland Mills High School coach Kenneth O. Hovet Jr., who filed a lawsuit against the office of the Howard County schools superintendent last month alleging he was being denied access to material he requested under the Maryland Public Information Act.

Hovet has been on administrative leave from his positions as a coach, teacher and athletic director since November, when he was accused of improperly altering a student's grades to make him eligible to play football.

In February, former Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, who sat silently at the hearing yesterday, recommended that Hovet be fired.

Bundy - a 1991 graduate of Oakland Mills High - said his former football coach "absolutely did not" alter any grades, and needs certain papers to properly prepare his scheduled June 11 appeal of the termination recommendation.

Hovet is suing for the documents' release as well as unspecified damages and attorney's fees.

At yesterday's hearing, school system attorney Leslie Stellman said Hovet had no right to the documents - which include the grade-tampering investigation report and witness statements - because they are protected under exemptions in the state public information law, which prevent agencies from turning over material that falls under any of three categories:

Documents that contain home addresses or phone numbers of public employees, such as teachers interviewed during the investigation.

Intra-agency or interagency memoranda or letters that would be "privileged in litigation," meaning documents that would not be "available by law to a private party in litigation with the unit." Typically, the documents also fall under an executive-privilege doctrine that protects papers created to assist in decision-making. The reasoning behind the exemption is that candor would be muted if people knew their words might be publicly circulated.

Documents governed by the attorney-work-product doctrine: materials prepared - typically by a lawyer - for potential litigation. Hovet is seeking documents that were put together by a school system administrator, but Stellman argued that the rule applies because they were gathered with the expectation that lawsuits could result.

"In this case, it was clear that litigation was on the way," Stellman said, noting the possibility that "high-placed officials [could be] reprimanded" as a result of the grade-tampering in- vestigation.

Hovet's counsel disagreed.

"The reasons that the superintendent puts forward [are] simply nonsensical in this case," Bundy said.

But the presiding judge, Dennis M. Sweeney, suggested that was naive.

"You don't do anything today without anticipating you're getting sued," Sweeney said. "You'd have to be in La-La Land to think otherwise."

Sweeney said he will do his best to wrap up the case quickly.

"I have serious doubts about this work-product thing, but there is a place for executive privilege," said Sweeney, who prepared the first several editions of the Maryland Public Information Act manual when he was a deputy attorney general.

The judge directed the attorneys to research attorney-work-product protection in such cases and to send him a letter by Monday with their findings.

"I think we need to focus on that, or at least I need to focus on that," Sweeney said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.