Howard County Court Clerk C. Merritt Pumphrey has filed a criminal complaint accusing the chairman of the local Human Rights Commission with illegally releasing to the public information about an investigation into Pumphrey's hiring practices.

In papers filed Friday in District Court, Pumphrey alleges that the commission's chairman, Rudolph C. Chapple, violated a county confidentiality law when he told several news organizations that the commission planned to ask a state agency to investigate Pumphrey's office for possible employment discrimination.

Last week, Chapple said the commission was taking the action because Pumphrey had no minority group members on his 33-member staff and did not advertise when jobs were available in his office.

Because the clerk's office is funded by the state, the commission would have to refer the case to the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, he said.

The section of the Howard County Code that Pumphrey cites in his complaint governs discrimination cases handled by the county Human Rights Commission. It states that "the activities of the . . . commission shall be conducted without publicity" until a case "reaches the administrative hearing stage."

An individual who is convicted of violating the statute could be fined $1,000 and sentenced to up to six months in prison.

Contacted yesterday, Chapple said he wasn't concerned about the charges. The state commission, not the local body, would be responsible for investigating Pumphrey's office, he said, and the confidentiality provision therefore does not apply to him in this case.

"I've lost no sleep; I've called no attorneys," Chapple said. "I figure these things will take care of themselves."

Deputy State's Attorney Dwight Thompson, whose office would be responsible for prosecuting any charge against Chapple, said it would be difficult to prove a violation of the law because the code has several conflicting provisions.

One section, for example, gives the commission authority "to inform the citizens of Howard County of practices and patterns of conduct which may be discriminatory," he said.

Pumphrey said yesterday that he would not comment on the allegations against him because his only knowledge of the commission's actions has come from newspaper accounts and a copy of letter sent to county officials. He has not been contacted by the state commission, he said.

"If I comment, I will be as guilty as they are," he said.

The case has been scheduled for a Dec. 8 court hearing.