Democrat fired from state job is paid $100,000 to end suit

But who fired Gardina and why still a mystery

February 08, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The Ehrlich administration has paid $100,000 to a fired state employee and well-known Democratic elected leader who had been in his job for five months, leaving unresolved who ordered his termination and why.

The state treasury issued a six-figure check last week to Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, ending a lawsuit in which he said he was removed from a low-level position at Maryland Environmental Service solely because he is a Democrat.

The not-for-profit independent agency assists with dredging, waste treatment and related tasks for organizations such as the Maryland Port Administration.

Gardina, 49, has a master's degree in environmental engineering and science from the Johns Hopkins University and was hired as a project manager in April 2003 - several months after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took office. He got the job after responding to an advertisement on the agency's Web site and was working under a contract of unspecified length.

Gardina received a favorable evaluation that August, he said. But he said he was ordered to leave about a month later, having earned a total of $25,000, after the governor realized he was on the payroll.

He sued the governor in November 2003, claiming his constitutional rights had been violated. The lawsuit said the councilman was fired on the recommendation of "Governor Ehrlich, himself and through his agents and employees."

Responding to Gardina's suit last year, the administration acknowledged that some personnel decisions were being made outside usual hiring channels.

The environmental agency director "discussed with an individual employed in the Governor's Appointments Office the plaintiff's employment status," Ehrlich's legal response said.

The appointments office vets nominees for a variety of patronage positions, such as membership on the state University System Board of Regents and the parole commission. It typically is not involved with low-level posts such as Gardina's.

But lawyers for the agency denied in the response document that the governor had directly ordered the firing.

Offer to settle

The Ehrlich administration offered to settle the case last November, a day before the scheduled depositions of several agency officials who were to be asked why Gardina was let go.

Lawyers had asked three agency managers to bring documents to the depositions, including "copies of any and all documents reflecting the political affiliation and political activities of state government employees employed by Maryland Environmental Services as of noon on January 15, 2003 or at any later date," a reference to the date of Ehrlich's swearing-in.

Gardina and his lawyers agreed to talk about the case only after the settlement check cleared, which happened late last week.

"There are only two remaining questions: Who ordered the firing of Vince Gardina, and why is the Ehrlich administration paying $100,000 to protect this person?" said Daniel M. Clements, Gardina's attorney. "This is quintessential hush money."

Gardina said yesterday that he was troubled he has not received those answers.

"The fact that somebody would order me to be fired from a low-level job that I was qualified for indicates there is some political opportunism there, and some vindictiveness," he said.

Asked whether he thought the settlement was a good use of taxpayer dollars, Gardina said no. "It leads me to believe they were trying to keep this thing as far from the people who were to be depositioned as possible, and to divert the trail and to stop the investigation," he said.

Ehrlich's office would not answer questions about the case.

"We will decline to comment as this is an individual personnel matter," said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman.

Told that Gardina had signed a waiver of his right to privacy last week and submitted it as part of the court file, Fawell said, "We will nonetheless honor our policy of not commenting on personnel matters."

Sean Coleman, an assistant attorney general and counsel to MES, also would not comment on why Gardina was fired or who asked for his firing. He said the case was settled because "the costs of litigation were greater than the settlement, so we thought it would be appropriate."

If the administration had waited a year and told Gardina it was eliminating his position as part of a reorganization, he would have received about $56,000 for a year's worth of work. Instead, he got $25,000 for his five months on the job, plus the $100,000 settlement.

In the 2002 election, Gardina defeated a close Ehrlich ally for his County Council seat. Former Republican state Del. James F. Ports Jr. - who gained notoriety challenging former Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger on land condemnation issues - ran against Gardina.

Gardina defeated Ports in a hard-fought contest, but Ports then was hired to a $112,000 position with the state Department of Transportation. Ports has been promoted since then.

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