Tuesday, February 26, 2008

CRG Alleges “Intimidation” by Dana Beyer

Citizens for a Responsible Government (CRG), the organization seeking to overturn Montgomery County’s Transgender Anti-Discrimination bill is alleging “intimidation” by County Council staffer Dana Beyer. And the group claims to have video evidence supporting their allegations.

CRG states in a press release that Beyer encountered its signature collectors outside a Giant Supermarket at Bethesda’s Westwood Shopping Center on Monday February 18. The following six-second cellphone video shows Beyer telling the collectors, “An email went out; you’re going to be asked to leave. Any petitions gathered today are illegal.”

CRG claims this is part of a pattern of “harassment and intimidation” by Beyer and others. Former Republican candidate for Congress Dan Zubairi also alleges that Beyer “ordered” him not to sign CRG’s petition but CRG supplies no evidence to back up that allegation. Finally, CRG alleges that Beyer violated Section 19A-14 of the County Code during the course of her activities. CRG attorney John Garza said he will “probably” file a civil rights lawsuit soon.

Beyer, an aide to County Council Member Duchy Trachtenberg, Vice-President of Equality Maryland and former candidate for District 18 Delegate, told her side of the story to this blog. She said she encountered CRG’s petition collectors on Primary Election Day, the following weekend and President’s Day (2/18), the date of the incident in question. At the Bethesda Giant, she entered the store, told the manager that the petition collectors were violating store policy (which allows the group to collect signatures on only one weekend per month), and left soon after making the statements to the group shown on the video.

Council Member Trachtenberg was the lead sponsor of the transgender bill. Beyer, a transgender female who serves on Trachtenberg’s staff, worked on the bill and advocates for keeping it on the books along with passage of a similar state-level law. Activists with Teach the Facts and Equality Maryland are now challenging the validity of CRG’s signatures.

“These people had a right to collect signatures if they’re not trespassing and they did so. But if they’re trespassing, there’s no right for them to be there,” Beyer told us. “I didn’t harass or intimidate anybody… I don’t think what I did is wrong at all.” Beyer accused CRG of employing scare tactics, saying, “You want to talk about harassment and intimidation – we’ve gotten death threats! I have to deal with this because people are threatening my life and those of my friends and colleagues.” Trachtenberg has also talked about “spiteful messages and threats,” telling the Frederick News Post last year, “(They) left a message on my home phone asking my husband if he knows my sex.”

CRG has two things going against it. First, its video clip is only six seconds long. It does not have any context associated with the events before or after the video was taken. That context, along with testimony and evidence about any other events at other locations, will be relevant in any lawsuit. Second, the organization has a history of distorting the content of the legislation. Given that history, CRG’s version of events cannot be trusted as the entire truth.

But the incident between Beyer and CRG raises some interesting questions.

Did Beyer violate the County’s ethics code?
County Code Chapter 19A-4(m) defines a “public employee” as including “the County Executive and each member of the County Council” along with “any person employed by a County agency, including the director of the agency.” No exemptions appear for council staff or any employees operating off-the-clock. Even non-paid board and commission members are treated as employees.

County Code Chapter 19A-14(e) states, “A public employee must not intimidate, threaten, coerce or discriminate against any person for the purpose of interfering with that person’s freedom to engage in political activity.” Do Beyer’s activities in the video constitute intimidation? That question may be examined in court.

How does this reflect on the Montgomery County Council?
Should CRG go to court, they will probably attempt to tie Beyer’s conduct to her supervisor, Council Member Trachtenberg. County Code Chapter 19A-14(f) states, “A person must not influence or attempt to influence a public employee to violate this Chapter.” CRG’s attorneys may very well ask whether Trachtenberg knew of Beyer’s activities. Trachtenberg has made ethics one of her priorities while on the council. For example, she questioned the ethical implications of lobbyist-paid trips taken to Israel by other council members in the past, ultimately causing the County to abandon them. Trachtenberg has set high ethical standards for herself and others and we would expect her to vigorously battle CRG’s charges in court. Other council members and their staff will pay close attention.

How does this incident change the debate over the legislation?
There is little question that this video will be a propaganda boon to CRG. They can now expand their argument beyond the narrow confines of the legislation (on which they are clearly wrong) and into the realm of civil liberties. CRG will ask what business a County Council employee had in enforcing Giant’s solicitation policy. Trespassing on Giant’s property is a matter for company management and the police. Throw in the fact that the council employee in question was a known advocate for the bill and an employee of its lead sponsor and CRG will claim political targeting by the government. Many people who support the transgender bill will be uncomfortable with the idea of county employees – especially the personal staff of council members – seeking to get petition collectors ejected from store premises. Civil liberties questions are now going to arise on both sides of this debate.

Update: The Sentinel's coverage is here.