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Accountabilityby Mark Reutter3:00 pmJul 1, 20240

Olszewski administration seeks $200,000 more in battle over public information records

Former County Administrator Fred Homan is challenging the county executive in a court case over money paid to a retired firefighter that was allegedly disguised by a false name

Above: Six of the seven members of the Baltimore County Council. Todd R. Crandell (R, 7th) was absent. (Mark Reutter)

The Baltimore County Council is set tonight to authorize $200,000 more in legal fees – on top of $350,000 already allocated – to handle a Public Information Act lawsuit seeking information about a secret payment made by the Johnny Olszewski administration to a retired firefighter.

The payments going to the Baker Donelson law firm are listed on page 50 of the council’s agenda as an amendment to “complex and time-intensive litigation” with little additional explanation.

The unlikely source of the lawsuit, a former high-ranking county official, has called out the attorney fees as being part of a “cover up” of allegedly illegal acts uncovered by his PIA lawsuit.

Earlier this year, a Circuit Court judge ordered the county to turn over thousands of emails and other records to Fred Homan, the former chief administrative officer, pertaining to a $83,000 check written out to former firefighter Philip Tirabassi.

Philip Tirabassi with Acting Baltimore County Fire Chief Jennifer Aubert-Utz in January 2019. (Facebook)

Philip Tirabassi with former acting Baltimore County Fire Chief Jennifer Aubert-Utz in 2019. (Facebook)

Stony Silence

Two months ago, Homan told Circuit Court Judge Keith R. Truffer that Baker Donelson was withholding documents and redacting other material in violation of the court order.

“That’s the reason why [the Olszewski administration] wants more money. They’re trying to stop people from finding out what they did and why they did it,” Homan said when permitted to speak at the council’s work session.

Homan implored the body to “question how this happened or you are complicit.”

“Question how this happened or else you are complicit”  – Fred Homan to County Council.

His statement was met with stony silence.

“Do any members have any questions, comments or thoughts to share with Mr. Homan,” President Izzy Patoka (D, 2nd) asked.

Hearing none, Patoka swiftly moved to the next agenda item, indicating that the body plans to approve the expenditure at tonight’s voting session.

Rubber Stamped

7/1/24 UPDATE: Grouped with 18 other fiscal items, the County Council unanimously approved the $200,000 add-on to the Baker Donelson contract, for a total of $550,000. No comments, no debate by council members.
Over the weekend, Homan emailed a lengthy statement to the council, which he shared with The Brew, that accuses Baker Donelson of handling documents ordered by the court in a way “to prevent the release of anything incriminating.”

Previously, the Olszewski administration said that it had entered an authorized confidential agreement with Tirabassi, who wanted to transfer two years and several months of service with the Baltimore City Fire Department to the county to be used when calculating his county retirement benefits.

The additional service time would have entitled him to a one-time payment of roughly $250,000 when he retired in 2020.

Such credit transfers had expired decades ago, but Tirabassi argued that the county had never properly notified him that he was able to transfer credits until it was too late.

Fred Homan says he found that the payment to Philip Tirabassi was disguised in county record as paid to a

Fred Homan says he found the $83,675 payment to Philip Tirabassi was recorded in county records under the name of “Philip Dough.”

Payment to “Philip Dough”

The then-budget director denied Tirabassi’s claim, and an assistant county attorney, Michael Raimondi, wrote that if the firefighter’s wish were granted, all other members of the county retirement system “risked losing the tax exemption of their benefits,” according to a internal memo uncovered by Homan’s lawsuit.

Nevertheless, the Olszewski administration sent a $83,675 check to Nationwide for the benefit of Tirabassi on December 2, 2020 from a general liability (not retirement) fund.

The administration recorded the check as going to “Philip Dough” in the Check Register Ledger rather than to Philip Tirabassi, according to Homan.

“Just so wrong on so MANY levels” – Email from Stacy Rodgers to Pat Murray.

Emails during this time period revealed that Chief of Staff Pat Murray and County Administrator Stacy Rodgers – as well as County Lawyer James Benjamin – labored over the details of the Tirabassi cash agreement.

At one point, Rodgers confided to Murray:

“This is probably the most annoying thing I have encountered in this tour of duty so far. Just so wrong on so MANY levels.”

County Council earlier this year with County Attorney James Benjamin and County Administrator Stacy Rodgers (facing council), who allegedly approved the payment to Tirabassi. (Mark Reutter)

A recent council session that included County Attorney James Benjamin and then-Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers, both facing the council, who were closely involved in the Tirabassi payment. (Mark Reutter)

No Comment

Reached by The Brew today, Tirabassi declined to discuss his retirement claim or cash settlement, saying, “I’m not part of anything. And I have no comment on anything.”

Tirabassi also refused to discuss his relationship with the county executive and his father, John Olszewski Sr., a former 7th district councilman.

In recent years, Tirabassi and a real estate company he owned gave $1,700 to the younger Olszewski’s campaign fund, while his salesman brother, John Tirabassi, contributed $1,400 to the county executive, who is running as the Democratic candidate for the 2nd Maryland Congressional seat in November.

If he wins the general election, which is widely expected, Olszewski will leave the county executive position with two years remaining in his second term.

Olszewski’s press office did not respond to questions submitted by The Brew about the Baker Donelson fees, the $83,000 payment made to Tirabassi and the county executive’s relationship to the retired firefighter.

The payment schedule for Baker Donelson up for County Council approve at tonight's meeting. (7/1/24 County Agenda)

The payment schedule for Baker Donelson that is up for council approval tonight. (7/1/24 County Agenda)

Starting at $25,000

The legal fees paid by the county to blunt the impact of the Homan lawsuit have increased sharply.

The original contract, dated September 3, 2021, allotted $25,000 to Baker Donelson.

A year later, the council agreed to increase the firm’s maximum compensation to $250,000 and then amended the contract on April 3, 2023 to boost the maximum to $350,000.

The $200,000 hike in fees now before the council includes new rates for Baker Donelson personnel, increasing the hourly rate for attorneys from $395 to $495 and paralegals from $225 to $250.

The new funds will be used to review and approve the documents required under the court order and to handle “any and all post-trial motions” deemed necessary and appropriate by the county.

Homan says his legal costs have so far amounted to about $200,000.

• To reach a reporter: reuttermark@yahoo.com

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