Md. dismisses whistle-blower complaint

State says port police officer violated agency rules in disclosing security flaws to newspaper

February 08, 2006|By GREG BARRETT | GREG BARRETT,SUN REPORTER

A whistle-blower complaint by a suspended port of Baltimore police officer who revealed security flaws to The Sun has been dismissed by the state.

George Tarburton Jr., a 16-year veteran of the Maryland Transportation Authority police, said the agency was breaking the Maryland Whistleblower Law by punishing him for disclosing information in the interest of public safety. He is on paid suspension and is expected to face a termination hearing this spring.

A previous hearing by the agency's disciplinary board was postponed Jan. 11 when Tarburton's lawyer, Michael Davey, filed a last-minute petition to show cause in Baltimore Circuit Court.

The court case, which argues for Tarburton's right to free speech under the state Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, has not been scheduled. Davey said yesterday that he has not decided whether he will contest the whistle-blower ruling, which could be appealed to the state's Office of Administrative Hearings.

The state's review of Tarburton's petition did not judge the veracity of his complaints about deteriorating conditions at the nation's eighth-largest port. Its task was to decide only if he was being unfairly punished for speaking to the news media, Davey said.

The state Department of Budget and Management, which rules on state whistle-blower complaints, concluded that Tarburton violated agency rules when he brought Sun personnel onto port property without permission. Combined with the release of internal documents to the newspaper, which broke additional agency rules, it rejected Tarburton's allegations of "unfair vindictive treatment," according to a letter signed by the department's Ann Gordon, a statewide equal employment opportunity coordinator.

Tarburton, a 41-year-old former Marine Corps sergeant, said yesterday he was surprised by the outcome. "I believe this sends a negative message not only to state employees but to everyone in question," he said. "People are now going to be even more afraid to come forward with information. ... They're just going to clam up."

Cpl. Pamela Thorne, a transportation authority police spokeswoman, said the agency is confident in its case against Tarburton. "The charges brought against Officer Tarburton are within the rights afforded him under the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights," she said yesterday.

On July 10, The Sun published an article that quoted anonymous police sources who pointed out the port's dilapidated fences, malfunctioning alarms, inoperable surveillance cameras and unattended gates left open for trains and trucks, and they produced logbooks showing that the agency's new patrol boats were frequently docked. Tarburton, like other sources for the article, had asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his $56,000-a-year job.

Four days after the story was published, he was identified by the agency as a source for the leaks and immediately stripped of his badge, gun and police powers. During questioning by investigators, he acknowledged his role in assisting in the newspaper's report and was charged with 14 violations, including insubordination, abuse of authority and neglect of duty.

A three-month investigation by the agency into the leaks of information to The Sun found that port officers and supervisors generally agreed with Tarburton's concerns about a weakening of port security, but most of the charges against him are for breaking with the chain of command.

"It had been four years after [Sept. 11, 2001], I figured they'd had enough time to fix the problems," Tarburton said. "I wanted to cut through all the bureaucratic red tape because the longer it took ... the more time terrorists could have to attack the port."

greg.barrett@baltsun.com

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