Last month, Flora J. Fortune and Sue Gallimore were summoned separately to see a supervisor in the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court in Upper Marlboro, where the women have worked for nearly two decades.
In interviews, Fortune and Gallimore, who work in the jury section, said they thought they were going to meet with the supervisor about a routine workplace issue.
Instead, Fortune and Gallimore said, they were met Aug. 23 by plainclothes investigators from the Prince George's Sheriff's Office. The investigators were there to question them about a handwritten remark someone wrote on a summons that was sent to a prospective juror and mailed back to the clerk's office, Fortune and Gallimore said. The investigators told them that they could face jail time for writing the remark, Fortune and Gallimore said. Each woman denied writing the comment or knowing who did it.
The handwritten statement said, "Rosalyn Pugh and Sherrie Krauser need to get their [expletive] together," Fortune said.
Rosalyn E. Pugh is the elected clerk of the Circuit Court. Sherrie L. Krauser is the Circuit Court judge who is currently in charge of ensuring that there are enough jurors for the court's criminal and civil trials.
A sheriff's office spokesman last week confirmed the investigation, but declined to provide details. Pugh said she could not discuss the probe because it is ongoing. Fortune and Gallimore said that at least one other clerk's employee was questioned by sheriff's investigators.
The criminal investigation is a dramatic indication of the rancor that has been roiling the clerk's office in recent weeks.
On Aug. 19, a labor union that represents many of the 180 employees in the clerk's office distributed yellow fliers in the Upper Marlboro courthouse saying workers there were being treated unfairly. Although the flier did not mention Pugh's name or office, it was clearly aimed at her.
In July and August, leaders of the union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, met twice with clerk's office workers who are unhappy with Pugh. Some employees accused Pugh of verbal abuse. Some alleged that she sometimes took months to reply to vacation requests. Some griped about things Pugh has no control over, such as the condition of the women's restroom near the jury office and a problematic elevator in a building that clerk's office employees worked in until recently.
Pugh was scheduled to meet with union leaders to discuss workplace issues two days ago. Results of the meeting were not available at press time.
In separate interviews, Pugh and Krauser said the acrimony is being generated by a small number of disgruntled workers. They said claims by some workers of unfair treatment are untrue.
"In my view, Ms. Pugh has done a tremendous job," Krauser said. "She's brought a level of professionalism to the office that's unparalleled. I think she holds herself and members of her office to high standards."
William D. Missouri, chief administrative judge of the Circuit Court, said he has received no complaints about Pugh from judges who rely on the clerk's office to provide jurors for trials, or from members of the public who file civil lawsuits, pay fines, acquire business licenses and access land records through the clerk's office.
Regarding Pugh's decision to ask the sheriff's office to launch a criminal investigation into the handwritten remark, Missouri said, "I'm not saying it's right or wrong to handle it this way. I might have done it differently."
Pugh said she believes some of her employees have a "political agenda" against her. She noted that Fortune plans a run for the clerk's job in 2006. She said she thinks that some union leaders who do not know her or her management style are stirring up some of the controversy.
Asked why some workers are unhappy with her, Pugh said, "Because I hold people to high standards. I'm an attorney, so I can be aggressive. I'm dynamic in that I will say directly to you what I mean. I won't yell, but I'm assertive. I'm direct and aggressive, and some workers are not accustomed to that coming from a woman."
Pugh also denied that she takes too long to approve or deny vacation requests. She said some workers have not filled out the proper forms in requesting leave time.
Pugh has 180 employees on her staff, all of whom are state employees. The job of the clerk is crucial to the work of the Circuit Court, touching on virtually every aspect of the justice system. For instance, Pugh's office issues arrest warrants after they are signed by a judge, and it issues release papers for people who are ordered to be freed from incarceration.
Pugh said she has advocated on behalf of her workers. She said she has lobbied state legislators for more staff to work on land records, and that she has tried to persuade lawmakers to give higher salaries to clerk's office employees.
Pugh said court clerk employees are grossly underpaid. Some administrative workers in her office make as little as $21,000 annually, and the highest-paid manager earns about $54,000 a year, she said. "Some people have been here 20 years, and they're making $34,000 a year. That's absolutely ridiculous," Pugh said.
In addition to business licensing fees and criminal fines, the clerk's office is responsible for collecting transfer taxes and fees related to land transactions. During her tenure, Pugh said, the amount of revenue the clerk's office has collected has tripled, from $16 million in 2001 to $48 million by the close of the fiscal year that ended on June 30.
While much of the increase is attributable to the sizzling real estate market, Pugh said, some of it is due to improved efficiency in the clerk's office. When she took over as clerk, no one in the office had an accounting degree, Pugh said. Today, Pugh said, there are two accountants in her office, and one, a certified public accountant, is a supervisor.
Pugh, 50, was appointed clerk by Prince George's Circuit Court judges in April 2001. She was selected to complete the term of Vivian Jenkins, who retired. In the November 2002 general election, Pugh trounced her Republican opponent by winning 81 percent of the vote.
The clerk's annual pay is $85,000, a salary set by the state Board of Public Works.
As for Fortune and Gallimore, both said they had been told by a clerk's office supervisor that they would be scheduled to report to the sheriff's office to take either a polygraph exam or a voice stress analyzer test to determine if they are telling the truth about the handwritten remark. Fortune and Gallimore said the supervisor later said the exams were voluntary. Both women said they would decline to take the test.
Under state law, a worker cannot be compelled to take "a lie detector or similar test" as a condition of employment. In Maryland, defacing a public document carries a possible maximum sentence of three years incarceration, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.
Richard A. Finci, a past president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys' Association, said the handwritten remark about Pugh and Krauser is merely a symptom of another problem. "The interests of the public would best be served by dealing with the morale issue, rather than the criminal investigation," he said.