Thiru Vignarajah Threatens to Sue News Outlet, Blocks Publication of Story About Reported "Abuse"
The candidate for State's Attorney gets ahead of another damaging story by intimidating and threatening local media
On January 20, 2020, a group of attorneys sent a letter to the presidents and deans at eleven local colleges and universities where candidate for Baltimore City State’s Attorney Thiru Vignarajah teaches law and criminal justice. At the time, he was running for mayor and leading in the polls. It stated:
To varying degrees and at different times while working for or with Mr. Vignarajah, we observed and experienced what we feel was an unhealthy work environment that ranged from uncomfortable to hostile to, at times, unsafe. We observed and experienced behavior that we felt was unstable, unethical, and at times abusive.
In the letter, the authors note that Vignarajah “did not show this side of himself to everyone.” They ask the president and deans to “meet with your students who have worked for Mr. Vignarajah or are currently working for Mr. Vignarajah—especially young women—to ensure they are safe,” including students assisting in his campaign. The authors also expressed “concerns about retaliation” as a reason for remaining anonymous. Six former employees and colleagues of Vignarajah confirmed being anonymous co-authors and co-signers.
Those six attorney were among 15 attorneys (men and women) that I interviewed for a story about this letter and about Vignarajah's time running the Major Investigations Unit at the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office (SAO), starting in 2011, and as deputy at the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) from 2015 to 2016.
My story was about to be published last week at Maryland Matters, a statewide political outlet. Its editor, Danielle Gaines, had approved the story. Interviews, records, and more were provided for fact-checking, as well as phone numbers of sources. All of the sources were practicing attorneys. All but two currently work as prosecutors at the municipal, state, or federal level. We reached out to Vignarajah on Monday, June 13, with a plan to publish on Wednesday, June 15. Instead, Vignarajah's team overwhelmed Maryland Matters editors with emails, documents, and threats, and the news outlet backed down and killed the story. It was part of a pattern of Vignarajah aggressively getting ahead of damaging stories, which happened in 2020 with a story of him being filmed on body camera during a traffic stop.
One of the letter's co-authors, Katie Dorian, Chief of Organized Crime at OAG offered Maryland Matters a detailed account of a working relationship with Vignarajah that she described as often “abusive” and "escalating" over the years. This began when she started as his intern in 2012 at SAO in his unit, where she was later hired as law clerk and attorney. It continued as both later worked at OAG, where Vignarajah was a Deputy Attorney General until 2016.
According to Dorian, Vignarajah made demeaning comments towards her; demanded outsized time, attention, loyalty, and gratitude from her; and had episodes in which he would lose control of his emotions and temper. As evidence, she provided screenshots of text messages he sent her from 2014 to 2016. The number matches the number under which he registered his campaign. In text messages, Vignarajah reportedly called Dorian “bitch,” “wretched piece of shit,” and seemingly criticized her for prioritizing her personal life.
Dorian said she was his subordinate at the time of these texts and the conversations involved professional matters. The second text exchange continued with Vignarajah mentioning a particular legal case.
In January 2015, Dorian said Vignarajah told her to plan a farewell lunch as he was leaving SAO to join OAG. She said he got angry with her that day and sent a text message refusing to come. “Maybe the embarrassment of this will teach you,” he reportedly wrote. He ended up showing up late, she said.
Dorian also shared screenshots of phone logs from 2016 showing Vignarajah making missed calls in rapid succession when he couldn’t get ahold of her, once 25 times in 14 minutes. According to Dorian, such behavior and language happened frequently over the years. She said he one time threatened to “destroy” her career when she said she would report him.
Dorian's former colleagues described her as having been Vignarajah’s “right hand man” and effectively his “deputy” or “chief of staff,” starting even when she was still his unpaid intern. Her troubles with Vignarajah were not known to many colleagues at the time, though several noticed him demanding a lot from her. “I just couldn't understand how someone could endure that for as long as she did,” a former colleague stated. “She never complained.”
Yet, a few former colleagues said they witnessed Vignarajah yell at Dorian or in her presence; saw her receive repeated calls or texts in rapid succession; and/or heard contemporaneous accounts from her about her difficulties with him. A few of them also shared their own instances of him making demeaning comments towards them, repeatedly calling or texting when they weren’t available, and/or asking them to do the same to others. A few others said they didn't experience Vignarajah being cruel or extremely temperamental, but they did express other concerns about his leadership.
Attorneys have been trying to bring attention to their experiences with Vignarajah for years. In 2020, some of them went to The Baltimore Sun. It seemed like a story addressing their concerns was about to be published, according to sources, yet the Sun seemed to back down or pivot. The resulting story gave the allegations a small amount of space in an article that largely minimized them. Most of the article quoted his supporters on the record about his positive attributes. Dorian posted her first and only tweet in the aftermath of that story.
There has been interest in this story, but the unholy alliance between local journalism and politicians, as well as the fearful culture in media, makes finding a home for it harder than it should be.
To Mr. Vignarajah's lawyers: Please note the use of "reportedly" and similar language throughout.
An "Army of Interns"
Three attorneys that worked for Vignarajah when they were younger separately described his workplace culture as like a "cult," with one saying that no longer working for him was like "de-programming." They and others described a workplace culture with demands of sacrifice, inner circles, perceived enemies, and a focus on Vignarajah’s personality and interests.
Vignarajah reportedly recruited a larger-than-average number of unpaid interns from the law schools where he taught compared to other attorneys and division heads—an “army of interns,” one noted. They were sometimes assigned to work with the attorneys under him, but most of the former interns interviewed for the article reported being pulled onto his cases. “They were his personal interns,” an OAG appellate lawyer, Carrie Williams, said. “I've never seen anybody else have personal interns.” Williams said Vignarajah tended to recruit young people like Dorian who were both “exceptional” and “impressionable.”
Dorian and others were recruited from the classrooms in which Vignarajah taught and law review journals at the schools. The 2020 Baltimore Sun article reported that he "supervised nearly 200 interns and law clerks." Many of them stayed on beyond the one term for while they could receive credit to work full-time without pay or credit. They reported only to him, with no orientation, guidance, structure, or support from human resources or any other administrative bodies, the former interns interviewed for this article said. Some reported receiving calls from him on the days they attended classes and weren’t in the office.
Dorian and others reported that interns and staff assigned to Vignarajah’s cases were often expected to work weekends and/or stay in the office until late at night or early morning, sometimes multiple days in a row. Some of them reported being made to wait around while he held closed door meetings and/or went home to spend time with his family before returning. Three attorneys separately shared that he did not want it known by leadership how many hours he was actually keeping his interns and staff.
Some of Vignarajah’s former subordinates said they went along with his demanding hours without coercion. Others described him making things difficult when they had their own obligations. Dorian recalled a Sunday night at SAO when she tried to leave before dinner to meet up with someone socially. She was a new attorney at the time and had stayed late all week and weekend. She said Vignarajah gave her a hard time about leaving and was relentless. “I don’t know what or who you’re too busy doing,” she remembered him saying (her emphasis). She said she left anyway and ignored subsequent calls.
According to Dorian, Vignarajah retaliated the next day. On Monday morning, she said he handed her a file she had to deal with in court right away. It was a case she had never reviewed, she said, and he wouldn’t offer any input on it. In court, the judge suggested she call her supervisor to advise on a decision. On the phone, she recalled Vignarajah saying she should have worked the night before, declining to help her, and hanging up.
Former interns and clerks reported that Vignarajah took them out to happy hour or dinner frequently. He reportedly would buy them drinks and/or encourage them to drink, then often return with them to work. (Vignarajah doesn’t drink himself.) Some of the former interns interviewed for the article said they enjoyed the experience at the time and benefited from it but look at it differently now. “Just because it benefited me doesn't necessarily mean that it was the right thing,” one stated. “I'm a prosecutor now, and never in a million years would I ever stay overnight with an intern in law school.”
Five experienced prosecutors in Vignarajah’s offices described being uncomfortable with his overly familiar interactions with law student interns, the hours he worked them, and/or his demands and attention on Dorian in particular. Some of them also described discomfort with Vignarajah involving law students in sensitive high-level meetings and case work. One experienced prosecutor acknowledged that he was a challenging boss, but said his leadership was similar to that at most “elite law firms.” Others said they have not seen that kind of workplace culture elsewhere.
Unpaid internships are common within the legal field and in other professions, but there are some laws governing them. U.S. Department of Labor guidelines require that internship assignments are educational in purpose and that interns don’t replace the work of paid employees. Yet, the guidelines exempt “certain people who volunteer to perform services for a state or local government agency.” In 2015, the State of Maryland passed a law protecting interns from discrimination and retailiation.
In January 2015, Vignarajah became Deputy Attorney General at OAG. Dorian was offered a position running the Organized Crime Unit later that year. At OAG, she said she sought to separate herself from Vignarajah, who wasn’t initially her direct supervisor, and shield her unit from him, which is confirmed by some others. She described a pattern of her pushing back on more of his demands, to which he would respond with anger.
Williams likewise reported Vignarajah could be relentless at OAG when he wanted things. His disposition could “change in a flash” when he wasn’t getting what he wanted, she said, from nice and solicitous to upset and even threatening. Williams was frustrated by Vignarajah’s insistence to the Baltimore Sun that “there was never a complaint, formal or informal” at any of his workplaces. She said she did inform a superior about difficulties working under him; Dorian said she did too.
Vignarajah announced his departure from OAG in 2016, saying he was going to help on Hillary Clinton’s transition team. Three attorneys provided first-hand knowledge that he was actually asked to leave OAG. They say Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) extended Vignarajah time to find his way out. A third Deputy Attorney General, Donna Hill Staton, was hired in December 2015 and took over some of his responsibilities. One attorney shared a screenshot of a text message from him in April 2016 in which he said he was being stripped of his title and supervisory duties. After he left, he became a partner at DLA Piper, a private law firm, a position he left in 2021.
Today, Vignarajah is seeking office for the third time in four years. A recent email from his campaign shows a picture of him standing next to a young woman, described as “one of our interns.” The email solicits other such volunteers: “Whether you’re in high school, college, graduate school, or you just want to get involved, this campaign can help you grow and learn.”
Since she last worked with Vignarajah, Dorian has steadily gathered the courage to talk about her experience. She felt compelled to start speaking out after a young woman followed her example by working with him and told her about a negative experience. Dorian felt she had an ethical responsibility to let others know. She has not spoken to Vignarajah in many years. He reached out in 2017 to let her know that he was running for State’s Attorney for the first time. She shared a text conversation. “I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “Wish me luck!” She didn’t respond.
Note: some background on one reason Maryland Matters gave for its lawyers killing the story in this thread. I've reached out to them to give them a chance for a fuller explanation with no reply.
Correction 6/23: I revised a sentence about The Baltimore Sun that originally stated, "It seemed like a story addressing their concerns was about to be published, but the Sun reportedly backed down to Vignarajah's demands, according to sources." Vignarajah's role in the the Sun's reported pivot is not clear. I've reached out to the reporter, but he declined to comment.
Updates 6/24: Language added about interns working without protection, experienced attorneys from original Maryland Matters piece.