Irby seeks to reverse firing from his liquor board job

Legal petition claims bias, says reasons were inadequately explained


Nathan C. Irby Jr., who was fired as Baltimore liquor board executive secretary late last month after a closed-door meeting with liquor board officials, took legal action yesterday to get his job back.

In a petition for judicial review filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, Irby, a former state senator and city councilman, accuses liquor board officials of failing to adequately explain why he was fired March 24. Irby was suspended pending termination Jan. 23.

Irby's petition also accuses liquor board Commissioner Edward Smith Jr., who handled the personnel action on behalf of liquor board Chairman Mark S. Fosler and Commissioner Jeffrey B. Pope, of "prejudice," adding that Smith went out of his way to make sure that Irby never returned to the state agency, denying him his constitutional right to due process.

"His open declarations that he was [Irby's] adversary, and other displays of significant personal animosity ... clearly demonstrated that Mr. Smith was not qualified to sit in judgment of him," the petition says.

In December, Smith sent an e-mail to Fosler and Pope in which he said that Irby "must go." The e-mail, which was distributed outside the liquor board, angered state senators from the city, who appointed Irby.

Those senators tried to kick Smith and Fosler off the liquor board in January but were thwarted by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who appointed Smith and Fosler.

Since his suspension, Irby has declined requests for interviews. Attempts to reach him yesterday were unsuccessful.

Irby's attorney, George L. Russell Jr., declined to comment.

Telephone calls to Smith and Fosler were not returned.

Pope, their colleague on the board, said he was not surprised that Irby was taking court action in an effort to get his job back but that Smith did the right thing in pushing for the termination.

"We are a unified board; of course we are going to give it support," said Pope, who was appointed to the board along with Smith in July. Unlike Smith and Fosler, who were Ehrlich picks, Pope was nominated by Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat. "It is not just one voice speaking. It's all of us," he said.

Pope said Irby upset board members when he failed to take action against three liquor board inspectors who had spotty attendance records. Pope declined to discuss the problems with the inspectors specifically because they are personnel matters, but he confirmed that they played a role in Irby's termination.

According to court documents, Smith was especially critical of Irby's decision to grant extended sick leave to inspector Karen Brooks, who has worked at the state agency since 1999.

Court records show that Irby agreed to give Brooks 12 weeks of sick leave in September, after she presented him with a note from her doctor.

At the time, Brooks' husband told The Sun that she could not work because the atmosphere at the liquor board was too stressful. Her request for sick leave coincided with action by the board to force inspectors, some of whom had jobs in other fields, to work eight-hour days.

In documents filed in court, Irby admits that he miscalculated the return date for Brooks after her sick leave but that he made the right decision in allowing her to return to work according to the city's civil service policy.

In a Dec. 23 letter to the board, which apparently sought Brooks' dismissal, Irby made it clear that he did not feel comfortable taking further action on the matter and was awaiting further instructions.

"As the policymakers for this agency, I will follow your instructions concerning Inspector Brooks," he said.

In his report detailing Irby's purported failures, Smith puts the onus for personnel matters, including the handling of sick leave, vacation and sign-in sheets, on the former executive secretary. Smith goes on to blame Irby for the loss of "virtually thousands" of work hours.

"That the system was compromised puts it lightly," Smith's report says. "The taxpayers have been savaged by inept oversight from the executive secretary. This was ultimately his responsibility and we find that he failed to competently perform his duties."

In his petition, Irby says Smith did not have the power to terminate him and that only Fosler, as the board chairman, had that power.

A copy of the March 24 termination document shows only Smith's signature, but Pope said he and Fosler signed it electronically.

Irby also argues in the petition that he was not allowed a proper hearing. He says that at a March 8 meeting, Smith failed to document any "incompetency or immorality" on Irby's part.

No court date has been set for Irby's petition.

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