County Attorney's Wife Sues Schools

By Philip Rucker and Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 1, 2007

The wife of the Charles county attorney has sued the Board of Education for job discrimination, alleging that the school system, where she is employed as an art teacher, has not done enough to accommodate her return to work after treatment for esophageal cancer.

Austine R. Fink's suit, for unspecified monetary damages and court orders blocking the alleged discrimination, was filed March 20 in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. Fink requested a job transfer for medical reasons and alleges that school officials did not comply with her request and violated disability and labor laws.

Allegations contained in the lawsuit have raised questions among county officials about whether her husband, Roger L. Fink, used the power of his office to influence his wife's employment status.

Court documents reveal that Fink advocated on his wife's behalf with top school system officials in at least three instances between July and December 2006.

Fink is the chief legal adviser to the county commissioners. The commissioners control Charles's budget, nearly half of which is allocated to the public schools.

The suit comes as the commissioners, school board members and their staffs wrap up several weeks of meetings to set priorities for funding school construction as well as next year's education budget.

The court filings describe several communications by Roger Fink with Superintendent James E. Richmond and Keith A. Hettel, the assistant superintendent for human resources.

Fink and his wife's attorney said in separate interviews Friday that they believe the communications did not constitute a conflict of interest.

Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large), to whom Fink reports, said he plans to look into the communications.

"I hope everything's on the up and up," Cooper said.

He added that if it appears the contacts raise any ethics code violations, the matter would be referred to the county's Ethics Commission.

The exact nature of Fink's communications with school officials on his wife's behalf remains unclear. Of significance, Cooper said, is whether he used the title of his office in the communications. State and county ethics codes prohibit the use of the power or title of one's office to benefit one's self or one's family, Cooper said.

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