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Allegations against vice chair deepen Montgomery Planning Board controversy

Casey Anderson, chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board, in Forest Grove Park in Silver Spring in 2018. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
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An investigation into Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson’s conduct has expanded to include the actions of Vice Chair Partap Verma and the abrupt firing of Planning Department director Gwen Wright, County Council President Gabe Albornoz said Tuesday.

A confidential complaint sent to the council on Monday and obtained by The Washington Post levied new accusations against Verma, who already had been publicly reprimanded alongside Casey and fellow board member Carol Rubin, deepening concerns about the planning agency’s governance and rattling employees as a council vote looms on a pivotal long-term growth plan.

An email sent to the Montgomery County Council on Monday and reviewed by The Post accused Verma of violating ethics laws over the course of the two investigations that his superior, Anderson, has faced in recent months.

Verma denied any wrongdoing in a statement and said there were “self-serving agendas at play.”

The complaint alleged he violated ethics rules by failing to immediately recuse himself from the investigation of Anderson and sharing information about an active investigation, and said that he’d breached the Hatch Act, which forbids federal employees from soliciting donations for partisan county council candidates.

The council referred Monday’s complaint, which also questions whether Wright’s firing was retaliation following her public defense of Anderson, to an independent investigator that the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) commissioned to review allegations that Anderson made misogynistic comments and fostered a toxic workplace.

“I’ve been in county government for 16 years,” Albornoz said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

MNCPPC Executive Director Asuntha Chiang-Smith said an independent investigator was addressing recent allegations and declined to comment further.

Anderson first came under fire in August after an investigation by the MNCPPC’s office of the inspector general — the division that investigates personnel behavior — found Anderson kept and shared alcoholic drinks with Planning Department employees — including Verma on one occasion — in violation of department policy. He apologized last week and had four weeks of pay docked as punishment.

In late September, Anderson faced fresh controversy after Verma sent a complaint to the county council alleging that Anderson had fostered a “toxic” workplace environment by using misogynistic language. Wright, the Planning Department director, defended Anderson in an email to the county council and a statement last week to WJLA, and was fired by the planning board Friday after an unscheduled closed meeting.

Monday’s complaint, sent to the council by Montgomery County Parks Department Deputy Director Miti Figueredo, accuses Verma of misconduct over the course of both investigations into Anderson. Verma informed county council members of the IG’s alcohol investigation before it concluded, the complaint alleges, and pushed for Anderson’s firing.

Figueredo was formerly Anderson’s senior adviser on the board, a role which involves performing research for the chair and acting as the chair’s liaison to other departments. She declined to comment on her complaint.

The complaint also accuses Verma of improperly soliciting Planning Department employees for information that triggered the investigation into Anderson’s fostering of a “toxic” workplace. Figueredo alleges that three employees quoted in the complaint expressed discomfort to Wright about Verma’s questioning, and that one reported “intimidating” interactions and felt he was being misrepresented. Verma declined to comment. Wright said the complaint’s characterizations of her former employees’ complaints was accurate.

The complaint also cast the Friday firing of Wright as retaliation for writing a letter in support of Anderson and speaking to WJLA, noting that Wright’s dismissal came one day after she spoke to the press. The board, which voted 4-0 to fire Wright, did not give a reason for its decision.

Albornoz said the council was asking questions about her departure.

Montgomery growth plan to move forward amid planning agency turmoil

Figueredo also said Verma had violated the Hatch Act by hosting an April fundraiser for county council District 6 candidate Natali Fani-Gonzalez and soliciting donations for District 2 candidate Marilyn Balcombe. Federal law prohibits government employees from soliciting political contributions for a partisan candidate. The Montgomery Planning Board website lists Verma as a counsel at the Department of Homeland Security, but co-workers said he switched to a different federal job. He did not respond to questions.

Verma said he donated to Balcombe and hosted a small meet-and-greet for Fani-Gonzalez, actions which he said are legal under the Hatch Act. Balcombe did not respond to a request for comment. Fani-Gonzalez said Verma hosted a meet-and-greet at his home for her campaign, and that she and her campaign manager asked for donations at the end of the event.

Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.