Maryland Public Information Act Foilies Thwart Transparency

Yesterday, I was entranced by a streaming video presentation of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s public hearing on ways and challenges of ensuring transparency and compliance with the Freedom Of Information Act. For a little more than 2 hours, journalists gave testimony to the committee members regarding their experiences with trying to get information from government agencies via FOIA. Besides my turning in of information related to a preposterous FOIA experience with the Department of the Air Force (will write about that later) to the committee, the streamed event was significant because it had some themes that relevant to Maryland and ALL states.

Nearly all of the panelists remarked on the “culture of secrecy” that they believe permeates the federal government. Each remarked how they kept experiencing violations of the FOIA, and how citizens shouldn’t have to sue using the courts out of frustration in order to get the government to be transparent. Indeed, citizens shouldn’t have to have and utilize unlimited resources and time to try to make the government abide by its’ own rules and regulations. When those whom are entrusted to work for our benefit violate the laws, and government actions are kept from its’ people, we have slipped perilously away from the democracy that we supposedly have.

Maryland would do well to take note of that.

Citizens have the right to monitor their government and its operations. When we see something, we are supposed to be able to say something. And we are supposed to be able to do so without fear of intimidation, reprisal, or backlash. What’s very interesting here in Maryland is this: when a citizen learns of problems in procedures and policies and makes a report of it, the report seems to circulate from one desk to another, never landing on any one desk where action could actually take place.

Case and point is the clerical entry problems written about on this blog’s previous post. As a result of the partial response provided by the Howard County Circuit Court clerk’s office pursuant to a Public Information Act request still outstanding, specific details were compiled and featured that indicated variations in the way clerk data entry occurs. As a result, an additional PIA was requested of the Howard County Circuit Court that sought information pertaining to courthouse policy, procedure and practices, as well as information pertaining to specific clerk actions. The court is aware of this website, and it indicated officially by return email that it was seeking “assistance” from the Maryland Judiciary in creating its’ response.

That was over a month ago.

Because there have been problems with timely responses to PIA requests from the judiciary (some already disclosed, and some still ongoing), additional members of the judiciary were made aware of the PIA request in the hopes that they would keep it on their radar and perhaps help to “do the right thing”. The following is a list of people who were sent a copy of the following letter and email, sent to the administrative judge (Judge Kiessling) who controls the 5th judicial circuit in which Howard County belongs:

Judge John W. Debelius, III

Judge Kathleen Cox

Thomas J. Barnickel III, CPA, Legislative Auditor

Karl Aro, Executive Director, Department of Legislative Services

Guy Guzzone, co-chair Joint Audit Committee

Craig J. Zucker, co-chair Joint Audit Committee

Gail H Bates, member, Joint Audit Committee

Thomas V. Mike Miller, President of Maryland Senate

Michael Busch, Speaker of Maryland House of Delegates

Out of ALL of these people listed, do you want to guess how many of them actually bothered to respond in some form or fashion? ONE. Hat’s off to Senator Guy Guzzone, from Howard County actually, who had a member of his staff send an email out in response to the letter. The email can be found here:

So, just as the FOIA panelists reported that they repeatedly find themselves in positions to keep digging for information to uncover relevant bits, the digging continued for me through Howard County records. You wouldn’t think that an office that reports directly to Senator Guzzone and the committee he co-chairs would cavalierly disregard the inquiry with statements such as “They have processes to independently check case data (judicial decisions) recorded”, but apparently they do. But since the Office of Legislative Audits doesn’t seem to have taken the time to fact-check, I did.

Pursuant to the Public Information Act request of the Howard County Circuit Court clerk’s office mentioned above, records were received pertaining to cases filed in the civil division during the calendar year 2011 in which a DBA (doing business as) designation of ANY type appeared in conjunction with either a plaintiff or defendant party to a case. Looking through one year’s worth of cases revealed some interesting information.

First, additional variations were found in the handling by the clerks of monetary judgments awarded by the court (as previously reported on this blog). In most cases, when a party has prevailed and won a monetary judgment, there is a “money judgment” box that appears in the case details screen on the Maryland Judiciary’s electronic case search system. It is the first step in learning what happened as a result of the case travelling through the court’s legal system. But there is a second step. In order to record the judgment, the clerk must do what is called “index” the monetary judgment details. On the electronic case search system accessible via internet, you have your choice of whether you want to search the “case search” system, or the liens and judgments system. So, let’s take a look at the Legislative Auditor’s statement to Senator Guzzone that “…no additional action is warranted.” How many cases would meet the threshold, one wonders, to warrant additional action?

The cases listed below had the following case designations printed in the court’s documentation/listing as a DBA (doing business as) entry. The DBA entries below are either FBO (for benefit of), T/A (written “TRA” on report, meaning “trading as”), and OBO (on behalf of).

In reviewing the list of cases and what the Maryland case search system reflects in terms of the “money judgment” awardee listed, there are discrepancies that essentially entail the following: sometimes, the clerk is designating that the money judgment to go to the proper party name, and sometimes to the “trading as” name.

The second noteworthy finding is what appears to have gone on with three cases in particular (indicated in red). In those three instances, the clerk’s indication and entry of party responsible for the payment of the judgment WAS NOT the “trading as” name as input by the clerk. Looking at the other cases, you can see that the clerk initially indicated it should be assessed to the party named as the alias. When it came time to index, they must have been using those “processes to independently check case data” mentioned by the Legislative Auditor. But that WASN’T the subject of my prior inquiry or blog post. The clerk’s handling and data entry into the Uniform Case System in Howard County, was. And it would appear that any process to independently check case data IS NOT CONSISTENTLY AND PROPERLY WORKING at the entry into UCS level.

As for Mr. Ngong, Ms. Rodriguez, and Mr. Moreno, it is interesting that filings were done against you PERSONALLY as opposed to the business entity names that existed and could have been used. That would be for the Maryland Department of Labor and Licensing to answer, since I haven’t viewed the actual case records. And I have no clue what the deal is with “C O Columbia Crossing, LLC” that doesn’t seem to exist (I did notice that NONE of the judgments listed against that entity have been paid, FYI). Do they even legally exist? Again, a different topic involving a different agency, though it will be mentioned that an opportunity existed for the government (the court itself as well as the Comptroller and Labor and Licensing) to protect citizens by ensuring that entities coming to court ARE actually legal ones with their rights to trade and do business with consumers being intact.

Clerks DO apparently have the power to decide which party name gets indexed when it is time to place the information into the lien/judgment system, and it’s not just a simple situation where information automatically populates from one system to another as I have previously been told. They are not always choosing uniformly in accordance with any policy or procedure (PIA request of Maryland Judiciary already confirmed that one doesn’t exist in terms of case party name details). I can report confidently that it was a clerk’s decision, and not a judge’s, to independently decide on their own which party name to code as the “prevailing party”, a circumstance that I share with other parties who have been through that court in 2011 (visible from my cursory inspection of only civil cases over a one year period in one court). It would be up to the Legislative Auditor to see how prevalent it happens, if they care enough to actually do so. It would be interesting and indicative of something if it has only been happening at Howard County, but that too would be up to government officials to investigate thoroughly. The outstanding PIA request of that courthouse is attempting to discern the identifier or code of the person at the clerk’s office who initially entered that data. So far, the response has been that the responsible person no longer works there. I’m wondering, could it be as a result of errors made just like these? And if so, did they check to ensure if her/his other entries contained errors? If not, why?

It appears that this is a situation where people in positions to do something just didn’t want to take the time to look at issues that a citizen brought to their attention. We are talking here about the LEGAL and judgment indexing system that citizens (and financial as well as credit-reporting institutions) should expect to be able to TRUST. (Judgment information get transferred to one or all of the three credit reporting bureaus of which, historically, information is cumbersome if not nearly impossible to correct). Actually, we’re talking about a legislative branch that has oversight over an aspect of the Maryland legal system. Speculation as to WHY people who can are choosing not to, will be reserved for another post coming very soon.

The case details that started this inquiry and the subsequent ones all relate to the derivative lawsuit filed by Darlyn R. McLaughlin on behalf of her client, Gail R. Proctor OBO Proceaux Properties, LLC. It’s not hard to see how the error could have happened in this case… a clerk didn’t utilize ALL of the space available to place characters into the “plaintiff” data field and as a result, broke the one party up into two, only to award judgment to ONE incorrect one when it was all done. That’s a training issue, easily fixed. As previously reported, they took the law into their own hands as a result, and completely transformed a derivative lawsuit into a direct claims one in the process and without the direction of a judge. It’s likely that they don’t know or understand, since nearly every other instance of “OBO” that they come across are Domestic Violence cases in which a party files on behalf of a minor or someone not able to represent themselves. Even then, the question of “who is entitled to the money judgment?” should not be one recklessly answered by careless entries by clerks. But then again, an attorney shouldn’t be putting forth things to the court they know to be false so as to perpetuate the error instead of working to correct it as the ethics rules for Maryland attorneys mandate. But the bigger statement is that NO ONE should have to work this hard to right what is clearly wrong.

In the unified words and sentiments of the journalists giving testimony yesterday in Washington, DC, when issues seem as if they will generate media coverage, government officials are vetting their responses before issuing them to the requester (instead of complying with the public information disclosure laws they are bound to uphold). A previous post on this blog related to the sporadic Public Information Act request fulfillment by Maryland government agencies touched a little upon the Maryland Judiciary. Portions of a 2013 PIA request of the Maryland Judiciary got fulfilled only a week ago, and one portion remains outstanding. If that’s an indication of how long it is going to take to fulfill another Judiciary PIA request, issued to the Howard County clerk’s office on March 30, 2015, then it seems it is going to take a while to get information that the public deserves to have.

You can’t have accountability without transparency. Maryland, your lack of transparency is glaringly blatant and obvious. The reasons for it will be left up to the imagination unless you timely provide information requested.

UPDATE: the Maryland Judiciary responded, in part, to the PIA request mentioned in the letter/email forwarded to the various politicians, but they have not yet fully responded to the original one sent to Annapolis and forwarded to the Howard County Circuit court clerk’s office. Their response helps to prove the point regarding clerk clerical errors: info transmitted to the Court of Special Appeals WAS NOT consistent with the information that the court, its’ staff, the clerk, and the one judge who has the power to do something about clerical errors, provided.

 

Again, it speaks volumes that a person has to go through so much drama, trouble and abuse to get a wrong made right. Why would people be working overtime to keep an error intact?