Among the obligations Robert Cassilly inherited when he took over as the executive of Harford County about eight months ago was a plan to renovate an unused county-owned building in Aberdeen and repurpose it as a precinct house and training academy for the Harford sheriff’s office.
Cassilly’s predecessor Barry Glassman publicly christened the project during a sort of formal unveiling in October 2021. On a sunny day, he and Sheriff Jeff Gahler, who wore his full dress uniform, spoke in front of the building’s entrance which was covered in a story-high black curtain.
“We had an underutilized building with easy access to major roads and it’s already paid for with local tax dollars,” Glassman said to the assembled crowd at the building, best known as the HEAT Center, which stands for Higher Education and Applied Technology.
Aaron Penman stood nearby with the other deputies who attended. Penman was soon to be elected to the County Council, but at that point was a sergeant and the union president.
“This precinct,” Gahler said in October, “will handle all law enforcement calls for service from Abingdon and the Riverside areas, the Bel Air, Churchville and Level areas, and Aberdeen and Havre de Grace outside of the municipal areas. These are all areas that have experienced significant growth over the past two decades.”
Almost two years later, the building remains unused and unchanged. Cassilly has yet to move forward with the renovation, a project that would require the county to borrow about $28 million. And the HEAT Center may be at the center of a series of allegations roiling Harford County that includes Penman’s assertion this week that Cassilly and his administration intercepted email and phone communications between him, Glassman, Gahler and others, alleging the activity was illegal wiretapping.
Tension over the project was evident as long ago as April 25 when Gahler spoke at a council meeting, telling members Cassilly had “chosen the path of defunding the police, much like liberal lawmakers and executives across the nation.” Cassilly and his predecessor are both Republicans, as is Penman.
In May, Penman accused Cassilly’s administration of misappropriating $7 million from the county’s general fund — specifically, sending the money without council approval to the county’s Department of Emergency Services. The funding was eventually approved, but the matter remains a point of contention.
“I support [funding] public safety whether it’s EMS, fire, or law enforcement,” Penman said. “But there’s a procedure to follow.”
Three weeks ago, Gahler doubled down on his characterization of Cassilly as a “liberal” when it comes to public safety and crime, likening him to former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in a video he recorded in front of the HEAT Center, ostensibly to update constituents on the status of the renovation.
“I had to check and make sure I still lived in Harford County,” Gahler said in the video, “and somehow was not in de Blasio land or someplace like Seattle or Portland.”
Penman characterized the administration accessing his email and phone records as retribution for accusing Cassilly of misappropriation.
Penman filed a complaint with Gahler’s office. Gahler assigned detectives to the case, directing them to report to the office of Harford’s state’s attorney, which then passed the matter up to the Office of the State Prosecutor. The prosecutor’s office would not confirm or deny it is looking into the allegations of wiretapping and misappropriation of funds against Cassilly.
Cassilly has parried Penman’s accusations, maintaining his staff was within its authority to examine “the electronic communications located on Harford County servers of the councilmember accusing a county employee of improper use of county funds.”
Patrick Vincenti, the council president, weighed in Wednesday, saying he was “deeply troubled” by the allegations.
“As the elected legislative branch of county government, my colleagues and I are not classified as employees of the Harford County administration,” Vincenti said. “Our collective correspondence with constituents and legislative matters should be held in a confidential manner.”
Penman does not accept the premise that sharing county servers implies full access to all communications they enable.
“We are separate and equal branches of government,” he said. “We are each supposed to provide oversight and transparency. That didn’t take place here. In my mind, they wanted to know exactly what I knew and what I sent to the state prosecutor. That’s an overreach.”
Whether the accusations will result in an indictment is unclear. What is clear is that less than a year into his new job, Cassilly has made serious adversaries. The rock in this battle appears to be the former HEAT Center, once managed and used by Harford Community College. The building is in a tech-centric office park a few miles from the Aberdeen Proving Ground and has been vacant for most of the past decade despite attempts to put it to good use.
Cassilly’s chief of staff Joseph Cluster acknowledged the decision to move forward with the renovation belongs to the county executive, and maintained that Cassilly made clear he wanted one year to consider the decision before sending the project out for bid, and borrowing the amount needed for construction. The county has already spent at least $1 million on a design for the renovation.
“It’s a big financial question,” Cluster said. “We already have a structural deficit. To take on another $28 million in debt is a big decision.”
Penman said he and the other council members support the renovation project because it puts an existing building to good use and fills a vital need. The existing two precinct houses are overcrowded, he said.
“The liability on officers today is much different than it was 20 years ago,” Penman also said. “We need this training facility so our deputies are prepared.”
“If this project is held up, it’s only going to get more expensive.”