If Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein has his way, Thomas A. Myers Jr. could be fired from his job in the comptroller's office next week -- more than four years after Myers died.
The case of Myers, a data processing analyst who Goldstein has been trying to fire for nearly seven years, has been argued before the Baltimore Circuit Court four times and before the state Court of Special Appeals twice. But it is more than just the longest running state personnel dispute in recent Maryland history.
The Myers case, say some people familiar with its history, also illustrates a side of Goldstein that is rarely seen outside the 1,300-member department he has controlled for the past 26 years as Maryland's comptroller. A politically powerful man who is regarded as a folksy and revered public servant by many, Goldstein is also known by some within his agency as an unforgiving boss who demands total loyalty.
Myers, by several accounts, did not measure up to Goldstein's standards, and he is paying the price even after his death. The only immediate legal consequence, if Goldstein's continued efforts are successful, will be that Myers' widow Muriel will lose a $25,590 death benefit.
"I think it is personal against my husband," Muriel Myers said. "I think all of this is so unfair. It hurts."
Goldstein declined to comment on the case while it is under litigation.
When an assistant attorney general representing Goldstein appears in Baltimore Circuit Court next Wednesday to continue the battle, he will argue the comptroller's case in terms of principle: that Myers violated the public trust when he secretly tape-recorded a conversation with his supervisor in August 1978.
Goldstein has been arguing the point consistently over the years, that someone who is a custodian of sensitive tax records must have respect for confidentiality. Myers, Goldstein has argued in brief after brief, failed the test and must be fired, even though he is dead, to protect the public's confidence in the comptroller's office, which handles state income tax returns.
At issue in the hearing Wednesday will be Goldstein's appeal of a decision by the state personnel secretary that retroactively limits Myers' punishment for the incident to a two-month suspension.
The ruling last Nov. 29 by personnel secretary John F.X. O'Brien would enable Myers' widow to collect the death benefit since her husband's status would effectively be reinstated as a state employe beginning a few days before his death in January 1981. But if the courts ultimately agree with Goldstein, Muriel Myers, a 61-year-old secretary who earns $18,000 a year, will lose the death benefit.
Goldstein has sought to fire Myers since August 1978, when the data processing analyst carried a tape recorder in his briefcase into the office of his supervisor who was to interview him for a newly created job in the comptroller's office. Myers, a veteran employe of the comptroller's office who had been active in his union local, earlier filed a grievance against his supervisor, alleging he had been denied a chance to apply for the position.
During the course of the interview, Myers' tape recorder began to emit a loud beeping noise. Myers then admitted to his supervisor that he was taping the interview, apologized and erased the tape. Taping a conversation without permission is a felony under Maryland law, but Myers was never charged with that offense.
In later testimony before a personnel department hearing, Myers conceded that the taping was wrong and said he did it because he had previously encountered "many problems with management in the comptroller's office."
Myers was suspended from his job in September 1978 pending disposition of removal charges brought by Goldstein. For the past 6 1/2 years, the case has been bouncing among the personnel department, the Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals.
Over the years, the personnel department has issued a number of conflicting rulings in the case. At first, the department dismissed the removal charges and ordered that Myers be suspended for a month. Later, after the Court of Special Appeals ruled that the personnel department had to consider the illegality of Myers' act, the then-secretary of personnel ruled in November 1980 that Myers be fired.
Myers appealed that ruling to the Circuit Court, but while the appeal was pending, he died of a massive heart attack on Jan. 3, 1981.
The case continued after his death as his widow sought to clear his reputation and win the death benefit. A year ago, the Court of Special Appeals returned the case to the personnel secretary on a technicality, setting the stage for O'Brien's decision.
"I have concluded," wrote O'Brien in his ruling, "that the sanction of complete removal from state service with its consequences of denial of death benefits . . . and permanent, and in some respects unjustified, injury to reputation, is excessive."
In an interview this week, O'Brien called his decision "a way of ending the dispute after 6 1/2 years."
O'Brien, who assumed the personnel secretary's post last year, said, "One of the things that struck me about the incident was that before anyone could have played back the recording, it was destroyed. That is certainly not a legal point, but I thought it was important. He Myers immediately tried to undo his mistake."
Asked to characterize Goldstein's decision to appeal his ruling to the courts, O'Brien called it "unfortunate."
Goldstein's appeal, carried by an assistant attorney general who is counsel to the department, employs arguments that have changed little over the years.
" . . . One who would covertly tape a conversation with another obviously lacks a proper respect for the notions of privacy and confidentiality that are inseparable from security concerns" that are critical in an office that handles income-tax returns, wrote Assistant Attorney General Gerald Langbaum in his appeal.
While conceding that the only practical effect of a successful appeal would be to deny Muriel Myers her late husband's death benefit, Langbaum rejected any suggestion that Goldstein's marathon pursuit of a legal victory is vindictive. Instead, said Langbaum, the comptroller is pressing the case as a matter of principle, one that is extremely important to the proper functioning of his department.
"The comptroller's position," said Langbaum in an interview, "is that when you have an employe who is in a sensitive position and deals with confidential information such as tax returns on a daily basis and is so insensitive to confidentiality that he will talk to his supervisor and tape the meeting, then he is not the kind of person you want with access to sensitive information . . . . Given the position that Myers held, the comptroller not only has the power to remove him, but should have removed him."
But sources close to the case who asked not to be identified said that the attorney general's office had urged Goldstein not to appeal O'Brien's decision. Goldstein has also been informed that if he loses this time in Circuit Court the attorney general's office will not represent him on further appeal, one of the sources said.
Persons sympathetic to Muriel Myers' case -- none of whom would speak for attribution -- argue that Goldstein has been motivated in his pursuit by Thomas Myers' union activities and suspicions that Myers was the source of embarrassing news stories about the comptroller's office in the late 1970s.
Muriel Myers believes her late husband's anguish over being fired contributed to his death. "It grieved him to death," she said. "I would like to clear my husband's name very much. He doesn't deserve this."