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Md. Legal Aid’s Joseph vows to stay on amid sharp criticism

Wilhelm Joseph, the longtime head of Maryland Legal Aid, says criticism of the agency's management is off-base and that he has no intentions of stepping down. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., the longtime head of Maryland Legal Aid, says criticism of the agency’s management is off-base and that he has no intentions of stepping down. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Maryland Legal Aid’s longtime executive director said Monday he has no plans to quit amid sharp criticism from more than 130 former staffers who call the recent firing of four managerial attorneys, allegedly for questioning back-to-work orders, symptomatic of senior management’s callous disregard for MLA employees who tend to the civil litigation needs of an indigent clientele.

“The answer is no,” Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr. said when asked if he would resign after 24 years as MLA’s executive director.

Joseph added that the former staffers’ writing concerns about MLA’s management are coming from “people who don’t have the facts.”  As for the firings, Joseph said, “We don’t comment on personnel matters.”

MLA will remain focused on “our No. 1 core value: clients first” amid the pandemic, Joseph added.

In their recent letter to MLA’s board of directors, the former staffers characterized what they described as pattern of disregard for employees and their safety on the part of senior management.

“What concerns us all is that these decisions – the demand to return to the physical workspace without allowing the return process to be adequately tailored in each office to community conditions, staff needs and alternative approaches to providing high-quality and safe client access as well as the vicious response to staff who speak up – reflect longstanding, deep organizational problems and an abandonment of MLA’s core values,” the letter stated.

“Based on the outpouring of disappointment and anger we heard and shared in response to this news, it is clear that this is not an isolated lapse of judgment but confirmation of what many see as upper management’s indifference to, and disrespect of, staff commitment and talent,” the letter added. “Left unaddressed, this situation will continue to hobble MLA’s delivery of services and harm the clients who staff are committed to serve.”

The former staffers’ message to the board was sparked by the July 24 firings of Anita Bailey, chief attorney for Anne Arundel County; Blake Fetrow, chief attorney for Prince George’s County: John Marshall, chief attorney for Montgomery County; and Lisa Sarro, a supervising attorney.

The three chief attorneys were fired a week after they had signed on to a letter — with eight other chiefs who were not dismissed — urging senior management to ease MLA’s back-to- work order amid the pandemic so that staff members who are parents lacking child care options or who are individuals with health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 could continue to work remotely. Sarro did not sign the letter but had raised concerns about MLA’s back-to-work policy, the former staffers wrote.

Joe Surkiewicz, MLA’s chief spokesperson from 2003 to 2013 and a signer of the former staffers’ letter, disagreed with Joseph’s view that the letter signers were ignorant of the facts.

“The facts that we have are enough to show the ongoing toxic atmosphere of retribution, the chilling effect on the rest of the staff after these four senior attorneys were fired for speaking out in a polite fashion,” Surkiewicz said Monday.

“This is an important institution that is being mismanaged,” he added. “It’s wrong.”

Though serving low-income clients, MLA had more than $25.5 million in net assets at the end of 2019, according to its most recent annual report. MLA received about $12 million last year from Maryland Legal Services Corp., which provides grants to legal organizations helping the needy, and $6 million from the federal government, the report stated.

MLA also received $900,000 in private contributions and another $300,000 from foundations last year, the report added.

The Baltimore-based legal services organization operates 12 offices across the state and served 106,846 people last year, MLA stated. The Daily Record last year ranked MLA the third-largest law firm in Maryland, with 172 attorneys on staff.

Amid the controversy over the firings, MLA signed a memorandum of understanding with its employees’ union last week stating that no more than 50 percent of its staff need be in their respective offices at any given time.

“Maryland Legal Aid recognizes that working remotely can continue during the COVID-19 pandemic to assure the health and safety of all staff and clients and to allow offices/units to maintain staffing levels of up to 50 percent,” the memorandum stated. “Maryland Legal Aid and the Maryland Legal Aid Workers Union … agree that during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maryland Legal Aid’s work must continue to serve clients, and Maryland Legal Aid must support its employees, and to the extent possible, keep its employees safe and healthy.”

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