The Court of Special Appeals has rejected a claim by Baltimore County government that a former county attorney violated state ethics rules governing lawyers when she represented other former county employees in two on-going lawsuits.
In a 42-page ruling issued Thursday, the court wrote that there was no basis to disqualify Virginia Barnhart on the basis of an appearance of a conflict of interest. (See the opinion attached to this story.)
Barnhart, an attorney at Towson-based Treanor Pope and Hughes, served as the county's top legal adviser from 1995 to 2001.
Barnhart later represented Brian Rowe, a former county auditor, and another employee in separate lawsuits related to provisions governing how the county credits employees in the pension system for their service in state government. In the Rowe case, the county lost and is appealing.
The county sought to disqualify Barnhart after losing to her on the Rowe case and learning she intended to file a class action suit if the county did not change its practices.
The county unsuccessfully asked a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge to disqualify Barnhart claiming an appearance of impropriety because she had access to privileged information she then used to aid her clients.
A Circuit Court judge dismissed the county's suit finding that there was no basis for the claim that Barnhart committed an ethical violation and determining that the County had filed the suit “for tactical reasons.”
Barnhart now has filed a class action lawsuit that could affect as many as 400 current and former county employees who have similar grievances.
The Circuit Court decision not to disqualify Barnhart was appealed by the county to the state's highest court.
In its ruling, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court decision and wrote that County Administrative Officer Fred Homan "could not identify any confidential government information that Barnhart possessed."
The court went on to say that "based on the timing of the county's response, a logical inference is that the county sought (Barnhart's) disqualification to avert her representation of potential clients on the same issue in the future."
Barnhart, in an email, wrote that she was “pleased that both the Court of Special Appeals and the Circuit Court concluded that she had done nothing wrong."
Barnhart wrote that she “takes her ethical obligations very seriously” and “felt vindicated and affirmed" but the Court of Special Appeals ruling.
Don Mohler, a spokesman for the county, declined to comment on the specifics of the ruling but said former County Executive Jim Smith, who was in office when the appeal was filed, felt strongly about the issue.
"The previous executive, who was an attorney and a Circuit Court judge, felt it was a conflict of interest," Mohler said.
Mohler said he did not know if County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who is also an attorney and was on the council when the appeal was filed, held similar views.
"I haven't spoke to him about it," Mohler said.
As part of the ruling, the Court of Appeals ordered the county to pay the costs for the appeal. It is not immediately clear how much the county would have to pay.
This post has been updated.