Leadership of the Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Office covered up that a deputy working on a narcotics task force had serious credibility issues, a county judge was told at an explosive hearing last week.
Now, Carroll County’s deputy prosecutor Edward Coyne is out, the sheriff’s deputy in question is under investigation and a man’s conviction has been overturned. The sitting judges in Carroll County have informed the State’s Attorney’s Office that they will recuse themselves from all cases in which State’s Attorney Allan Culver is directly involved.
At a hearing last week, Circuit Court Judge Richard R. Titus sought to know “who knew what, and when,” and said at the conclusion of the hearing that officials had given differing accounts that caused his concern to grow.
“I was hoping that the information in today’s hearing would clear things up so I didn’t have concerns,” Titus said, according to an audio recording of the hearing. “If anything, my concerns are magnified.”
Culver, who has led the office since July, did not return multiple requests for comment, and the office referred questions to a senior state’s attorney who did not return requests for comment. The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office also did not return calls.
Rodney Morris, president of Carroll County chapter of the NAACP, said he was concerned about the lack of information and whether other cases are affected.
“We’re hoping there’s further investigation into other cases that this individual has been involved with,” he said.
Assistant State’s Attorney Jennifer Brady, at times emotional, told Titus at the May 27 hearing she had learned that rank-and-file state troopers were so suspicious of Sheriff’s Deputy Sean Buenger that in February they gave him phony information about a drug stash house.
Brady said she was told that Buenger took the false address and applied for a search warrant, claiming he had visited the home and conducted a search of its trash that turned up drug paraphernalia. There was a “race to pull the warrant” before it was submitted to Titus to sign.
But when the public defender’s office sought disclosures about possible credibility issues with Buenger, the incident was not disclosed as required by law under the so-called Brady rule. The Sheriff’s Office maintained that the case “had nothing to do with the veracity, truthfulness or a violation of any rules, policies or procedures,” according to a court filing.
Brady told Titus that she had repeatedly raised concerns about Buenger to her superiors in the State’s Attorney’s Office from the start.
“Obviously, this was extremely troubling information. I felt we had a duty to look into it,” Brady said. “Deputy Coyne and I had a conversation about what we had just heard. He disagreed with me. I told him, ‘Well, in that case, don’t ask me to handle any of his cases because I’m not going to call that person to the stand because of what I know.’”
Brady said she raised concerns days later in a meeting with Coyne and Culver. “I made my position clear,” she said.
But Brady didn’t leave it there. She contacted someone she knew in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as well as the Attorney General’s Office, asking what her obligations were.
The next month, Brady said she spoke to a state trooper with firsthand knowledge of the false affidavit sting, and he said he had contacted the FBI, Brady said. She again told Culver.
Brady didn’t have any cases with Buenger, but when she learned in late March that the prosecutor handling his cases didn’t know about the credibility issue, she complained to Coyne and to Culver again.
“It wasn’t right that she didn’t know that we knew about this issue and she did not,” Brady told the judge. “I warned her, there’s issues with Buenger, and she needs to be careful. .. I went to State’s Attorney Culver and told him it’s not fair to put the rank and file in” that position.
Buenger was suspended from duty for about three weeks in March, court records show, and the public defender’s office started pushing for more information. Only then did the information come to light. A man who had pleaded guilty to drug charges in a case brought by Buenger had his conviction overturned and case thrown out.
“Carroll County residents often read about police misconduct in other places, but we have long known that it happens here too,” said Allison Sayers, District Public Defender for Carroll and Howard counties. “Falsifying affidavits or other dishonesty by an officer has a palpable harm to the individual charged and the community, and it is vital that prosecutors fulfill their obligations to disclose this information.”
But Titus wasn’t ready to drop the issue. Even with the case disposed, he called Culver, Coyne and Brady in for a hearing on May 27 to get to the bottom of the issue.
He said the information about Buenger’s alleged misconduct conduct should have been “like a thunderbolt” for the prosecutors’ office.
Coyne apologized at the hearing, and said only that he did not “appreciate the exculpatory nature of the incident.”
“There was enough information that I should have realized, especially with as much experience that I have, I should have taken more steps to investigate,” Coyne said.
Culver described the information about Buenger as a “rumor” and that Coyne had said he didn’t think it was something that needed to be looked into. Culver said he personally told Sheriff Jim DeWees “this needs to be investigated.”
State police said in a statement late Friday that they were “not involved” but declined further comment.
“I have Mr. Coyne and Mr. Culver, who I’ve known for years, saying they don’t have a recollection, don’t dispute certain aspects,” Titus said during the hearing. “My concern remains that when I’m not being given a clear answer on things, what are my obligations?”
Bradley Tanner, a spokesman for the Maryland Judiciary, said the judges of Carroll County conferred and decided to recuse themselves from cases directly involving Culver and Coyne.
“We are grateful that the court has recognized the seriousness of this issue and we will continue to demand the transparency and accountability needed for a more just system,” Sayers, the public defender, said.
Coyne’s name was removed from the State’s Attorney’s Office website Friday morning. Officials there did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Titus said at the hearing that Buenger had been removed from the drug task force and moved back to patrol. Titus said the sheriff’s office and state’s attorney’s office fought to keep the issue confidential, asking for protective orders “like I’ve never seen before.”
Titus said prosecutors also sought to “sweeten” a plea deal that was being offered, shifting it from five years with all but 18 months suspended, to time served with drug court.
“It seemed the state was more focused on securing the conviction than it was disclosing the information to defense counsel,” Titus said.
Culver has spent 20 years with the Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office and took over in July after State’s Attorney Brian DeLeonardo was appointed to the bench. He is not running in the upcoming election.
The Republican primary for the spot features Del. Haven Shoemaker running against attorney David Ellin. Campaign signs in Westminster show Shoemaker running on a ticket - with Sheriff DeWees, who is running unopposed for a third term.