Posted: Nov. 4, 2003
TALE OF THE TAPE
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
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
"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,
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."
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
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
"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,"
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