William “Chris” McCollum had two careers in Baltimore County, the first as a county employee and the second as a political operative and fundraiser.
Although neither ended well – McCollum pleaded guilty last Thursday to embezzling $141,285 from two campaign committees he served as treasurer – his dual jobs conferred on him a remarkably privileged and protected status for three years during the first term of County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.
That status caused his fortunes to soar after Olszewski took office and produced a furious backlash against Inspector General Kelly Madigan after she reported waste and improper expenditures by McCollum when he headed the county’s Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park, known as the Ag Center.
But it was the extraordinary generosity shown to McCollum after he left his county position under a cloud in 2021 that is most troubling.
The Olszewski administration struck a secret deal with McCollum that allowed him to remain on the payroll for more than 10 months, receiving both his salary and county health benefits as well as accruing employment service intended to make him eligible for a pension windfall.
The deal violated county law. It also violated a 2018 charter amendment, approved by voters, that requires compensation paid to exempt-service employees be governed by a plan submitted by the county executive to the Baltimore County Council for approval.
Olszewski claimed that he was unaware of the charter requirement and did not implement it until after his deal with McCollum was exposed by the media.
Last Thursday, McCollum was held accountable for his campaign finance crimes, pleading guilty to felony theft and perjury charges brought by State Prosecutor Charlton T. Howard III. McCollum potentially faces one year in prison when sentenced in July.
Will anyone in the Olszewski administration be held accountable for its unlawful deal with a disgraced employee, which cost county taxpayers about $130,000 and, quite possibly, much more?
Fundraising for Olszewski
McCollum began employment with Baltimore County in 2002. In 2010, he was appointed director of the newly formed Ag Center by then-County Executive Jim Smith. He became treasurer of Smith’s Baltimore County Victory Slate in 2014.
McCollum’s tenure at the Ag Center was marked by controversy.
It included clashes with the Maryland Agricultural Resources Council (MARC), the principal private partner in the development and operation of the Ag Center. According to The Brew, a member of MARC directly complained to Olszewski about McCollum at a 2018 campaign event, saying “he’ll be poison to your administration.”
The complaint apparently fell on deaf ears, perhaps because McCollum had turned his fundraising efforts toward Olszewski after his surprise victory in Democratic primary for county executive.
The Brew traced $20,000 in Olszewski campaign contributions by McCollum after the primary, much of it through his role as treasurer of the Cathy Bevins campaign committee and Smith’s Victory Slate that figured in his guilty plea.
After Olszewski took office in December 2018, McCollum’s status in county government improved dramatically.
McCollum’s status improved dramatically after Olszewski took office in 2018.
In February 2019, he was appointed head of “anchor initiatives” in the Department of Economic and Workforce Development, doubling his salary. He was quickly promoted to deputy director, then served as acting department director from August 2020 until November 2020 when a permanent director was named.
Returning to his deputy director post, McCollum was also appointed a senior administrative assistant to County Administrative Officer (CAO) Stacy Rodgers. The unusual dual appointment – at a salary of $137,500 – was more evidence of McCollum’s privileged status.
The senior assistant to the CAO is defined as an “appointed department head” for purpose of an enhanced pension benefit limited to officials who serve at least two years in that category.
For McCollum, those two years started when he was appointed acting department head in August 2020. The dual appointment allowed that clock to continue to run after November 2020.
A Resignation That Wasn’t
Although McCollum’s career with the county withstood the two IG reports detailing his transgressions at the AG Center, it did not survive warning signs that more serious problems were on the horizon.
On June 1, 2021, The Brew reported that the State Prosecutor Charlton T. Howard III had opened a criminal investigation that ultimately led to last week’s guilty plea.
Shortly after the story appeared, Olszewski’s spokesperson announced that McCollum had resigned his position with the county, effective July 2, 2021.
That date may have been his last day at work, but it was not his last day on the payroll.
Nine months later, in April 2022, reporters found out that McCollum was still employed by the county, drawing his $137,710 salary and receiving county-paid health benefits.
According to Olszewski’s spokesperson, McCollum was using sick leave to remain on the payroll even though he was neither ill nor injured – and previously had used “other” forms of leave to excuse his absences.
The letter memorializing the agreement between the county and McCollum that kept him on the payroll was only recently made available to the public through intervention by the state Public Access Ombudsman.
The letter by SAO Rodgers (see above) provided for payment for his unused vacation leave and awarded him six weeks of “P” leave (permission leave with pay) in lieu of severance.
It also provided: “In that you do not have other options for health care coverage, the County will allow you to utilize your accrued sick leave in order to continue your health care until you find other employment. Upon obtaining other employment the County will end this coverage.”
In other words, keeping McCollum on the payroll as a senior assistant to the CAO allowed him to retain his county health benefits.
It also allowed him to keep accumulating time as an appointed department head.
Sources told both The Sun and a Banner reporter that the primary purpose for keeping McCollum on the payroll was so he could complete the two years as an appointed department head necessary to qualify for a dramatic increase in the pension he’d receive when he became eligible at age 60.
And to do so without spending a single additional day working for the county.
A deal that, until revealed by the press, would have handed McCollum a potential pension windfall of $400,000.
The Sun estimated that if he completed the two years, his annual pension would increase from about $50,000 to about $68,855, a windfall of about $400,000 over his expected lifetime.
From what we know from publicly available information, it appears that he had to stay on the payroll through July 2022 to qualify.
Three weeks after discovery of the secret deal, Olszewski’s spokesperson stated that the county had stopped paying McCollum as of May 18, 2022.
Neither that statement nor the status of McCollum’s pension can be confirmed because personnel and retirement records are protected from public disclosure by state law.
Abuse of “P” Leave
Section 4-2-102(a) of the County Code requires that Personnel Rules, adopted by the County Council upon recommendation of the Personnel and Salary Advisory Board and the county executive, include “standard provisions for vacation, sickness and leave.”
The rules provide employees with a generous range of paid leave, including vacation leave, sick leave, and personal leave.
Not appearing in those standard provisions for leave is “P” leave approved at the discretion of the CAO. It is described in an uncodified collection of policies and procedures known as the County Personnel Manual.
The legal foundation for any form of paid leave not contained in the Personnel Rules is dubious. But its use for exempt service employees, such as McCollum, without the express approval of the County Council was plainly improper after the charter amendment described below took effect.
As for the sick leave used by McCollum, the Personnel Rules do not allow sick leave to be used for anything other than illness or injury during employment.
Sick leave that was earned but unused at the time of an employee’s retirement may be added to the employee’s service time for purposes of calculating the employee’s pension benefit.
But unlike unused vacation leave, it may not be “cashed out” upon termination. The county’s policy is consistent with that of most major employers in Maryland.
Based on McCollum’s $137,710 salary, the misuse of permission leave and sick leave appears to have cost the county about $130,000 when the value of county health benefits is added in. That does not include any cost to the county from an increase in his pension benefits resulting from the unlawful arrangement.
Violation of County Charter
Last June, a county spokesperson issued the following statement explaining the decision to keep McCollum on the payroll:
“Because the County does not have a policy for providing severance to senior level employees, who do not have the ability to accumulate annual leave, the County has in some cases allowed these employees to be paid for their earned sick leave time upon request. This is a practice begun in previous administrations, and has been used periodically during the current administration.” (Emphasis added.)
The problem with that explanation is that what the county did “in some cases” under “a practice begun in previous administrations” was repudiated by a 2018 amendment to the county charter.
The amendment was adopted in response to a scandal during the administration of former Executive Kevin Kamenetz.
Reports in 2017 that a former police chief was being kept on the payroll “as a show of gratitude” led to discovery of an informal and unpublished “policy” that authorized severance pay for senior-level employees.
Kamenetz scrapped the practice of severance pay, and the Council asked the Charter Revision Commission for its recommendation on addressing the “gap” in the charter regarding the compensation of exempt service (non-classified service) employees.
The claim that neither Olszewski nor his leadership team knew about this well-publicized charter amendment defies belief.
The Council resolution placing the commission’s recommended change to the charter on the November 2018 ballot passed unanimously. The ballot measure read as follows:
“Section 505 of the Baltimore County Charter is amended to provide that officers and employees in the exempt service shall have their compensation determined according to a system adopted or amended by the County Council on the recommendation of the County Executive.”
The amendment was approved by 71% of the voters and took effect on December 6, 2018.
Despite being highlighted by The Sun as “one of the more substantive changes on the ballot approved by voters” that would eliminate “lucrative perks” never approved by the Council, the amendment somehow escaped the attention of the new county executive.
His administration apparently continued to craft severance pay for departing exempt-service officials as it saw fit.
In an email dated May 2, 2022 to this writer, CAO Rodgers stated that “the Administration was not aware of the requirement” imposed by the charter amendment (see above).
Standing alone, the claim that neither Olszewski nor his leadership team knew about a well-publicized charter amendment defies belief.
Especially when you consider the fact that both his first county attorney, Michael Field, and his current county attorney, James Benjamin, were members of the Charter Revision Commission that recommended the amendment.
Did his top lawyers fail to mention the amendment for over the course of three years? Or did Olszewski ignore the matter until the McCollum situation blew up in his face?
The June 8, 2021 letter memorializing the agreement with McCollum was signed by CAO Rodgers, with copies sent to Olszewski, Benjamin and Patrick Murray, who was then Olszewski’s chief of staff.
The agreement violated county law and resulted in the unlawful expenditure of at least $130,000 of taxpayers’ money for a privileged and protected employee who hardly deserved such generosity.
The apparent excuse: Ignorance of the law by four of the highest-ranking officials in county government.
Will anyone be held accountable?
• David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney after 31 years in the county law office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @dplymyer.