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DNR head denies retaliating against spokesperson for Facebook remark

The head of the Department of Natural Resources denied Thursday that a duty reassignment for an employee was related to a social media post referring to a gubernatorial candidate for governor as an “a–clown.”

Candus Thomson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, claims she was demoted in September from her position after making a critical comment about Ben Jealous’ decision to veto a reporter’s participation in a debate with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Thomson testified at a preliminary injunction hearing that previously she was a clearinghouse for news media requests and is now no longer permitted to speak to the media directly, though she still writes press releases.

“My previous job was a Porsche and my current job is a Yugo,” she said.

Defendant Mark Belton, secretary of the department, said the change in Thomson’s duties was not in response to the Facebook post but a result of repeated issues with how she performed in her role. The defense also disagrees with Thomson’s characterization of the change as a demotion and pointed out the similarities between the positions.

Thomson is not seeking monetary damages but is asking U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander for a temporary restraining order and for a preliminary injunction that would, at least temporarily, reverse the change.

Thomson had set Nov. 6 as a retirement date before the incident, and her last day will be Monday because the office is closed Tuesday. Hollander said she mentioned Thomson’s retirement in a telephone conference with the parties and “thought heads would prevail but here we are.” She also acknowledged that if there was First Amendment retaliation, Thomson’s imminent retirement does not matter.

Thomson’s alleged demotion came less than a week after she responded to a post about Jealous vetoing Hagerstown Herald-Mail reporter Tamela Baker from participating in a scheduled debate. Thomson made her comment on the personal-professional Facebook page of Bryan P. Sears, a reporter for The Daily Record. She posted it Sept. 17 at 5 a.m. from her personal tablet device in her home.

Thomson said she voluntarily removed the post on Sept. 18 after being confronted by her immediate supervisor, who asked if she had made such a post. Thomson testified she was upset by Jealous’ decision.

“I thought that Tammy was being unduly punished and placed in the spotlight,” she said.

Thomson said her use of “a–clown” meant “the pinnacle of being inept” but deleted the comment after it became clear it was causing a problem.

Belton said, however, that while it was not the first time one of Thomson’s social media posts had been a cause for concern, it did not play a role in the department-wide email that went out Sept. 20 informing employees she was no longer the public information officer for the NRP.

Belton pointed to a story in the Annapolis Capital on Sept. 18, the day after the Facebook post, that brought negative attention to the agency which wasn’t properly handled. The story, about an NRP officer-involved collision Sept. 16 in which a civilian’s car was struck and a dog inside killed, was the first Belton heard about complaints from the car’s occupants that the officer ignored their requests for help at the scene.

He called it an “egregious example of non-coordination” between Thomson and the communications office for the department and just the latest example of the issue.

Additional DNR employees were testifying Thursday afternoon.

Thomson is represented by H. Mark Stichel and James Astrachan, of Astrachan Gunst Thomas PC in Baltimore. Belton is represented by Roger L. Wolfe Jr. and Jennifer L. Wazenski of the Maryland Office of the Attorney General.

The case is Candus Thomson v. Mark Belton, 1:18-cv-03116.

Daily Record State Government Reporter Bryan P. Sears contributed to this report.

 


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