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Thursday •  August 25, 2022


“All in the Family”, Howard County: How County Executive Calvin Ball Personally Authorized Ten Years Worth of Pay Raises in Just Three Years for his Underqualified Sister-in-Law Who Wrongfully Denied the Public Release of Hundreds of Emails that Included Evidence of Broken Laws and Backroom Development Deals

How would you feel if your County Executive hired his family member (who was simultaneously employed as his election campaign manager) to serve as his Administration’s Public Information Request handler and, while in that position, the family member proceeded to illegally deny the public release of hundreds of emails related to correspondence between the County and a developer lobbyist, some of which showed evidence of backroom deals and broken laws?

 

What if, as reward for these “services”, your County Executive promoted this family member to a county position that they didn’t have the educational requirements for and used your county tax dollars to lavishly provide this family member with the equivalent of ten years worth of pay increases in just three years?

 

What if this all occurred while the County was in a severe budget crunch that had led that same County Executive to implement a county hiring freeze and cut back the public school system budget so severely for multiple years that the school system was forced to implement a teacher pay freeze, cut 74  paraeducators , and drastically lower the special education budget that was already severely strained ?

 

These questions are unfortunately not hypothetical and describe an unprecedented and deeply concerning situation that has been brought to Howard County by County Executive Calvin Ball.

 

Three previous HoCo Watchdogs posts published over the past year have provided deep dives into this issue.  These posts are highly recommended prerequisite reading in order to fully understand this situation:

 

 

 

This post will present concerning new details about the highly unusual professional and financial rewards that Calvin Ball personally authorized for his family member whom he hired as a member of his Administration after being elected to serve as Howard County Executive in November 2018.

Background / Recap

 

From December 2018 through mid February 2022, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball employed his sister-in-law, Jamila Ratliff, as his “Executive Liaison”, a county employee position with an average annual income of almost $100,000.  During this three year timeframe, he simultaneously paid her almost $77,000 from “The Calvin Ball Team” to continue serving as his election campaign manager.  These payments are shown in Appendix 1 at the end of this article.

 

The position of “Executive Liaison” included the responsibility of handling all Public Information Act (PIA) requests that came to the County Executive’s office.  With this responsibility, Ball’s sister-in-law proceeded to repeatedly and wrongly deny the public release of hundreds of emails related to correspondence between members of the Ball Administration and a private land use attorney & developer lobbyist, Tom Coale. 

 

A lawsuit was subsequently filed by the originator of this public information request, Robert Flanagan, to seek the hundreds of wrongly denied emails.  Many of these emails were ultimately released and were found to detail meetings between the Ball Administration, Mr. Coale and other county developers to discuss important land use and development planning issues that the public deserved to know about.  Some emails even contained evidence of the Ball Administration violating Maryland Law (the Open Meetings Act).

 

Flanagan’s lawsuit ultimately resulted in the county admitting that it had violated the Public Information Act and the Open Meetings Act While the Ball Administration claimed that the violations were accidental, depositions and email evidence from the lawsuit indicated that the concealment was intentional.  This evidence was so strong that a judge presiding over the case stated in a recent hearing that “there could be evidence showing a willful violation” of the law, and that the county was “in effect” acknowledging this willful violation by offering to pay the maximum penalties ($1,000 and legal fees) to settle the dispute.

Unusual County Employee Pay Raises

 

While County Executive Calvin Ball hiring his sister-in-law and election campaign manager to work just outside his office as his “Executive Liaison” and personally handle the County’s Public Information Act requests is concerning enough, the issue becomes even more concerning when the pay increases and promotions that Ball personally authorized for this family member are examined and compared to those of previous county employees who served in the positions that she held.

 

Ball’s sister-in-law was originally hired as an “Administrative Assistant I” in December 2018.  Her working title for this position was “Executive Liaison”.  In August 2019, she was promoted to “Administrative Analyst II” , maintaining the same working title of “Executive Liaison” but being promoted to a higher pay band and a position of even greater responsibility and authority.

 

Shown below is a comparison of the annual salary for the “Executive Liaison”-type County Administration employee who served in these positions —  “Administrative Assistant I” and “Administrative Analyst II” — from 2007 through the present, obtained from the county via public information requests.  The full archive of pay raise documents for these employees is available upon request by emailing hocowatchdogs@protonmail.com :

The county’s previous “Administrative Assistant I” Executive Liaison-type employee started in 2007 at county Pay Grade I / Step 14 (~$62,421 annual salary).  It took this employee over 10 years to progress to Grade I / Step 19 in 2018 (~$83,959 salary).

 

In comparison, Calvin Ball’s sister-in-law was brought in at Grade I / Step 17 ($79,144 salary) in January 2019 for her “Administrative Assistant I” position.  Just 6 months later, in June 2019, she was bumped up to Grade I / Step 19 ($85,639 salary) after a highly unusual “two step” bonus for receiving a “Substantially exceeds expectations” rating for her 6-month Probationary Period.

 

Two months later (August 2019), Ball then promoted his sister-in-law to the position of “Administrative Analyst II”.  The prior county employee in this position had started their salary at Grade K / Step 3 ($63,255) and ended at Grade K / Step 4 ($65,820).  

 

Ball’s sister-in-law, however, started in this newly-promoted position at Grade K / Step 13 ($87,912 salary) and advanced to Grade K  / Step 17 ($105,074 salary) in just two years (December 2021), before abruptly resigning in February 2022, presumably due to the increased scrutiny that was brought on by the Flanagan lawsuit.

 

The general rule for “step” pay increases for county employees is that for Steps 1 through 11, single step increases are granted each year for employees who satisfy their job duties.   Beyond Step 12, it should take employees two years to increase by each step, with the exception of a rare bonus for above-and-beyond service.

 

These rules explain why it took the previous “Administrative Assistant I” Executive Liaison-type employee from 2007 to 2018 (about 10 years) to advance from Pay Grade I / Step 14 to Pay Grade I / Step 19.  The advancement of five Pay Grade Steps past Step 12 required a wait time of approximately 2 years per step increase, or approximately a total of 10 years.

 

In contrast, Ball’s sister-in-law not only received a very generous starting salary, but proceeded to receive approximately 10 years worth of step increases in just 3 years:

By December 2021, Calvin Ball had raised the salary of his sister-in-law from ~$79,000 to over $105,000.  This included a two-step increase (the equivalent of four-year’s worth of pay raises) in December 2021 personally authorized by Ball even after the Flanagan lawsuit had been filed.

 

How does this compare to all Administrative Analysts on the Howard County payroll?  Here are the approximate top salaries for those employees with this job classification.  Note that this list is outdated and does not reflect the latest pay raises at the end of 2021 that brought Ball’s sister-in-law up to $105,074:

At the top of this list is the “Howard County Police – Director of Research and Planning”.  According to this employee’s professional LinkedIn page, they have been a Howard County employee since 1994.  In less than three years, Calvin Ball’s sister-in-law was already almost matching the top-paid county employee for this job classification — an employee who had worked their way up the pay scale for almost 30 years.

 

An important detail to note is that almost all pay increase forms for the employees who preceded Ball’s sister-in-law were signed by Howard County Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Lonnie Robbins.  Mr. Robbins has been the Howard County CAO since 2007 and is still serving in that position today. 

 

In contrast, beyond her initial hiring form, all pay increase and promotion forms for Ball’s sister-in-law were signed directly by Calvin Ball.

Promoted to Position Without Required Education Experience

 

In addition to providing his family member with extremely accelerated pay increases over her three year timeframe as a county employee, Calvin Ball also promoted this family member to a position that she did not hold the required educational experience for. 

 

During her deposition, Ball’s sister-in-law admitted that while she had completed a two-year Associate degree at Howard Community College, she had, in fact, never completed four-year college and did not have a Bachelors degree:

With an Associate degree, Ball’s sister-in-law was fully qualified for the initial position that she was hired for, “Administrative Assistant I”, with pay classification code 1413:

However, just 8 months after she was hired, in August 2019, Ball promoted his sister-in-law to the position of “Administrative Analyst II”, with pay classification code 1303.  As shown below, this position lists “Bachelor Degree” as the minimum education requirement:

Closing Thoughts

 

In closing, let’s examine Howard County’s law on nepotism, discussed briefly in this previous HoCo Watchdogs post.  According to the ‘Nepotism’ section of the Howard County Employee Manual,

The above rules are clear:

  • No person will be hired, reinstated, transferred, promoted, rehired or demoted by the County to a position which places them in a subordinate role with a family member (which includes sibling-in-law).

 

  • Persons will not initiate, participate, or influence decisions involving a direct benefit to a family member. Such decisions include hiring, retention, transfer, promotion, wages and leave requests.

 

  • Relationships that involve partiality, preferential treatment, or the improper use of authority or position for personal and/or professional gain are prohibited.

 

  • Anyone found to be in violation of this policy will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including a termination from employment.

 

By the documented evidence shown above, County Executive Calvin Ball:

  • Hired his family member to be his “Executive Liaison” (a county employee working directly with him on a regular basis, with a desk right outside his office).

 

  • Continued to pay this family member almost $77,000 from his election campaign to simultaneously operate as his campaign manager.

 

  • Personally signed the promotion form for this family member to a position that required a four-year Bachelors degree despite the fact that this family member only had a two-year Associate degree.

 

  • Personally signed every one of this family member’s pay increase forms and approved for her the equivalent of approximately ten years worth of pay increases in just three years.

 

  • Continued to personally authorize these extremely unusual pay increases even after the actions of this family member had resulted in a significant lawsuit that cost county taxpayers many thousands of dollars in legal fees and fines for breaking Maryland laws (the Public Information Act and the Open Meetings Act).

 

If this is not nepotistic favoritism and conflict-of-interest, what is?

 

How is this acceptable in Howard County, let alone anywhere in the United States?

 

Are there no checks or balances in Howard County for holding the County Executive accountable for such actions?

 

In a recent Baltimore Sun article, Calvin Ball brazenly dismissed the community concerns and lawsuit arising from this situation as “frivolous” and a “Donald Trump, Dan Cox-style political stunt”.  Ball maintain this stance during a recent County Executive candidate debate hosted by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce:

The gaslighting, projection and deflection of blame with these statements should be clear to every reader of past HoCo Watchdogs posts on this issue. 

 

County Executive Ball’s stubborn refusal to take this issue seriously and his cavalier attempts to paint the lawsuit and public concerns associated with it as a “partisan stunt” should deeply concern every Howard County resident. 

 

While the concerns raised by issue are certainly relevant during this election cycle and are sensibly being employed as a point of attack by Allan Kittleman, Ball’s opponent in this year’s County Executive race, the framing of this issue and the lawsuit that resulted from it as an election-year stunt could not be further from the truth.

 

Do these statements by County Executive Ball sound like the words of a public leader who recognizes the broken laws, deep breaches of public trust and disregarded ethics standards that he is responsible for? 

 

If Dr. Ball cannot hold himself and his staff personally accountable for these actions or even recognize the gravity and damage caused by them, how can he be trusted to not commit these same illegal and unethical acts again?

 

So what can be done to bring about full accountability for this situation? First, share this HoCo Watchdogs story as far and wide as possible on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere to bring awareness of this issue to all Howard County residents. Discuss the issue openly and regularly and contact your County Council and State representatives to let them know about this situation, how you feel about it, and ask them what can be done. Contact media outlets and ask them why them have not covered this issue yet.

 

While the civil trial for the Public Information Request violation part of this situation resulted in the county voluntarily admitting its crimes and offering up the maximum $1,000 fine (paid by us taxpayers), there was strong evidence of willful intent, which is a criminal violation (misdemeanor) of section 4-402 of the Maryland Public Information Act.

 

One or more motivated Howard County residents could contact the Office of the Maryland State Prosecutor and convince them to pursue a criminal case in this matter. While the damages for such a case would be the same as the result of the civil trial ($1,000), a criminal case would allow for a formal trial to take place and the parties involved would need to testify under oath instead of just giving depositions, which would make it harder for the County Executive’s sister-in-law to state “I don’t recall” over 300 times, as she did in her deposition.

 

Another action that can be taken is to support the idea for formally creating a Howard County Office of Inspector General, to act as a formal watchdog for county government. While this idea hasn’t been formally proposed yet, it is something that county residents could express support and interest in by reaching out to County Councilwoman Liz Walsh (who is rumored to be considering proposing such a bill) and other County Council members to let them know that there is strong interest for such a county oversight position.

 

Appendix I

 

As detailed in a prior HoCo Watchdogs post, for the entire three-year timeframe that County Executive Calvin Ball was using Howard County taxpayer dollars to pay his underqualified sister-in-law’s generous salary and highly unusual pay raises, he simultaneously paid her a cumulative sum of almost $77,000 from “The Calvin Ball Team” to continue serving as his election campaign manager.  These payments are shown below:

Just what did Calvin Ball’s sister-in-law do to receive this ~$77,000 in payments from his election campaign while she was a county employee? 

 

When asked about this during a deposition for a lawsuit that arose due to her illegal actions as Ball’s Public Information Request “Gatekeeper”, Ball’s sister-in-law “couldn’t recall” what any of the payments were for, responding with that same answer ( “I don’t recall”) over 300 times.

 

Since abruptly leaving county employment in February 2022, Calvin Ball’s sister-in-law has returned to serving as his campaign manager on a fulltime basis.  Between March 2022 and the end of June 2022, “The Calvin Ball Team” has paid Ball’s sister-in-law over $48,000, an amount equivalent to over 18% of the total campaign contributions received by the Ball campaign from individuals and businesses during this timeframe:

This bears repeating: one out of almost every five dollars contributed to the Calvin Ball election campaign since March 2022 has been paid to Ball’s sister-in-law/campaign manager.

 

How does the pay of Calvin Ball’s sister-in-law compare to other election campaign managers, such as Allan Kittleman’s?  Shown below are the campaign expenditures of the Kittleman campaign team to the manager for his 2014 campaign (Diane Wilson) and the manager for his current campaign (Phil Nichols):

Note that Kittleman appointed his then-campaign manager (with no family relation to him), Diane Wilson, to be his Chief of Staff after being elected County Executive in 2014, but no campaign contributions were received by Ms. Wilson after being appointed to this county position.

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