Posted: Nov. 4, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

In quite an extraordinary press conference last week, sisters Lynda R. Maloney and Maria A. Rendina were transformed from the most famous library aides in New Castle County history to the most famous federal witnesses since Thomas J. Capano's brothers turned on him.

Thomas S. Neuberger, their lawyer who is as tall as the sisters are small, shepherded them Friday morning into a modest-sized conference room at his Wilmington practice and spun a tale of strange happenings involving his clients and the two-term administration of County Executive Thomas P. Gordon and Chief Administrative Officer Sherry L. Freebery.

Not only the press came to watch. Four aides from the Gordon administration were there, including one who had a tape recorder and also held out a cell phone transmitting back, Freebery acknowledged later, to county spokesman Thomas G. Hubbard because he could not attend himself.

Neuberger announced that Maloney and Rendina were filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Gordon, Freebery and the county for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages because the sisters were forced to quit their jobs in retaliation for their participation in a federal criminal investigation into the county administration.

He said they agreed to wear wires, as did other county employees whom he represented, as many as a dozen he would not identify, in connection with the federal investigation.

"I'm convinced the indictments are imminent," Neuberger said, although he would not explain why he thought so.

The lawyer also described harassment at his own expense. He said his home computers were infected with designer viruses and his office computers hacked, with county-related files accessed and copied. The FBI investigated, but the trail died with an Internet service provider in Beijing, China, he said.

The morning of the press conference, Neuberger said his car was smeared with dog feces.

He declined to speculate that the people behind the harassment were you-know-who.

"This office will not be intimidated," Neuberger said. "The law is like a mighty river. Once you're caught in its current, there is no escape."

Gordon and Freebery rejected almost all Neuberger had to say when they were interviewed together on Sunday afternoon at the County Government Center near New Castle.

"It's a political investigation. It's a political case," Gordon said. "Their claims are laughable, and that's where they're going to get in trouble."

Freebery said, "I can't wait to get them under oath."

Gordon added, "He [Neuberger] is clearly saying I hacked into his computers. That's pretty serious. Then he comes out and has dog [feces] on his car. Now it's really bizarre."

There is much that has been bizarre already in this running battle between the two sisters and the two officials -- a clash that has been public for more than a year now and involves familiar names in state politics.

Maloney is Wilmington's former first lady, the widow of Thomas C. Maloney, the Democratic mayor who ran the city with panache after he was elected as a 30-year-old to a single term in 1972. He died in 2000. Neuberger called him the equivalent of "our beloved John Kennedy."

Lynda Maloney also has been in the inner circle staging one of Delaware's most insider of events -- the First State Gridiron & Dinner Show, an annual roast attended by the political and corporate elite.

Maloney, 56, spent 14 years at the county, and Rendina, 49, was there for 29 years (including transferred state service), until they quit their $63,000-a-year jobs as executive assistants in August, saying they were forced out.

Their departure was noisy and public. They said they had been mistreated -- most notably when they were transferred in October 2002 to the Bear library for about three weeks as the federal investigation swelled, only to be returned to their desk jobs after news coverage of their situation.

They said the physical work at the library caused them carpal tunnel syndrome, a repetitive wrist injury that required both to have surgery. Gordon scoffed at that. "I'll pay $20 a [shelved] book, and I'll bet it's not over $200," he said.

Gordon and Freebery, both 51,  made names for themselves as county police chiefs before switching to the civilian side when Gordon ran as a Democrat for the top governmental post in 1996. He campaigned on a platform of cleaning up land-use planning and cutting costs, clobbered a token Republican candidate and did not even face another one when he was re-elected in 2000.

Gordon is barred from a third term, but Freebery is looking to run in 2004, although it would mean a Democratic primary against Council President Christopher A. Coons, a critic of the administration. The Republicans have yet to find a candidate but say they will.

In the lawsuit Maloney and Rendina say they witnessed "dishonesty and illegality" in county government, including "financial irregularities, improprieties, fraud and corruption" but did not detail it.

The only example they gave is what is publicly known, the assigning of executive assistants on county time to work for about two weeks, generally from Freebery's Hockessin home, on the political campaigns of administration allies in the 2002 primary election. Gordon and Freebery have acknowledged they did it but relied on advice from the county attorney saying they could.

In a rare agreement, the sisters and the officials both say Maloney and Rendina kept their political work to after-hours.

The sisters say they went to their bosses with their concerns to no avail. "Gordon declared that he and Freebery could do whatever they wanted with executive assistants working under them," the lawsuit said.

On September 11, 2002, Maloney and Rendina took their concerns to federal authorities, meeting with U.S. Attorney Colm F. Connolly and officials from the FBI and IRS and agreed to join what Neuberger said was an ongoing investigation.

The sisters recounted tense times in their lawsuit:

"On Sept. 22, 2002, Freebery called a meeting of county employees whose names were mentioned in subpoenaed personnel records. At this meeting Rendina asked questions while gathering information for the FBI. After the meeting concluded and while the employees were filing out, Gordon rushed up to Freebery, grabbed her arm and pulled her into a private area, frantically saying, 'It must be her. It has to be.'

"Then on Oct. 2, 2002, defendant Gordon became angry and irritated when he discovered that plaintiff Rendina had been subpoenaed and stated, 'They call their star witness on the first day. I'm not stupid.'

". . . [He] subsequently made repeated references to 'what you guys are telling them' and accused plaintiffs of having their own 'secret codes' used to transmit information. Later on Oct. 27, 2002, Maloney was warned that Gordon suspected plaintiffs as federal informants."

Gordon and Freebery say it never happened. "I would have to think when people are wearing wires, they have to be very paranoid, they have to operate in the twilight zone. I don't ever recall him [Gordon] saying, 'It has to be, it has to be,'" Freebery said.

The two sides exchange their sharpest criticism over remarks Freebery is said to have made about the death of the sisters' father Anthony Rendina, who died in October 2001 when he was 84. While not offering details, Neuberger says Freebery shocked the sisters by accusing them of "killing their beloved and recently deceased father."

The lawsuit fairly screams about it.

"Plaintiffs were hurt, wounded, distressed, shocked, anguished, stunned, appalled, floored, taken aback, offended, traumatized, scandalized and otherwise outraged by these false accusations against them."

Freebery says the only comments she made were a running joke. They began when the father was in the hospital but recovered enough to be discharged after Maloney made him a favorite Italian meal. When he weakened again, Maloney found him in the kitchen, making a sandwich for himself, so Freebery joked, "Good God, Lynda, you're killing the man. He's hungry. You've got to feed him."

Neuberger says the sisters are worried about their safety. Gordon disputes it, citing the Gridiron dinner in May. Freebery was lampooned repeatedly, including this broadside in a spoof of "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun":

Some call me a pistol.

I sparkle like a crystal

Even though CAO's not Number One.

Now would you find it scary

To work in a library?

And I swear it was fair

When I sent those broads to Bear.


"They're not concerned for their safety," Gordon said. "That's bizarre. That's outrageous. That woman wanted a pound of Sherry's flesh, and she got it."

Gordon concedes he has doubts these days about whether running for county executive was worth it, but Freebery does not seem to and says she does not intend to be deterred from running herself.

"I think a large part of the investigation is to keep us from staying around another four years," she said.