Court order clouds election

Columbia Council hopeful barred from contact with official

March 29, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

If Robert E. O'Brien wins election to the Columbia Council next month, he'll probably need to spend a lot of time with Rafia Siddiqui. But that could be a big problem: O'Brien was convicted last year of assaulting the senior Columbia Association official and ordered to have no contact with her.

In October, Howard County District Judge Alice P. Clark found that O'Brien assaulted Siddiqui after a public hearing in August on a disputed land-annexation plan. Clark granted O'Brien probation before judgment, which will erase the misdemeanor conviction for second-degree assault from his record if he successfully completes 18 months of supervised probation.

One requirement of his probation is that O'Brien have no contact with Siddiqui, the Columbia Association's chief financial officer, who routinely attends council meetings to brief members on financial matters. He also must attend an anger-management course and perform 125 hours of community service.

O'Brien, 67, contends that he never assaulted Siddiqui and that serving on the council would not constitute a violation of his probation.

"She can stay away from me as much as she wants. I'm not going to go to meet with her," he said yesterday. "I never did anything to her, and I'm not going to do anything to her in the future."

O'Brien also said the no-contact order does not prevent him from being in the same room with Siddiqui or speaking with her. He said he is barred only from physical contact.

"The judge had no intention of prohibiting me from speaking to Mrs. Siddiqui," he said. "She meant a repetition of what Mrs. Siddiqui alleged occurred, which did not occur. That's the way I see it, and that's the way the judge intended it - no physical contact with her."

Probation officials were not available yesterday to comment on the case.

Howard County Deputy State's Attorney I. Matthew Campbell said that generally, no-contact orders cover contact of any sort, including phone calls. "In the run-of-the-mill case, no contact means no contact," he said.

Siddiqui declined to comment.

She filed a criminal complaint against O'Brien in District Court after an Aug. 2 public hearing on a plan to annex a Rouse Co. development in North Laurel. O'Brien opposed annexation of the so-called Key property. Siddiqui supported the plan, which eventually failed.

After the hearing broke up about 10 p.m., O'Brien approached Siddiqui and extended his hand as if to greet her with a handshake, Siddiqui's complaint states.

"Then he grabbed my hand and started to squeeze extremely hard while with the other hand he grabbed my upper arm and started to pull and shaking violently," she says in the complaint. "He was also very verbally abusive and threatening. He said that, `Mrs. Siddiqui, we are going to take you down, tear you apart, kick you out and beat you,' and while grinding his teeth he kept saying, `I will beat you and take care of you.'"

O'Brien acknowledged that he spoke with Siddiqui after the meeting to tell her that "she didn't make a good sales argument for annexing the Key property." But he said he did not assault her.

"I spoke to her, and there were crowds around us, packed," he said. "She got jostled, and she made a big thing about it, saying that I did it."

O'Brien is the only challenger to incumbent Miles Coffman for the Hickory Ridge seat on the 10-member council, which sets policies for the homeowners association and oversees a $44 million annual operating budget. The election will be April 21.

Stephen A. Drazin, a Columbia lawyer who represented O'Brien in the assault case, said he believes his client is free to seek office, particularly because Siddiqui is not a member of the council. "My interpretation of the judge's order would not necessarily preclude Mr. O'Brien from running for office, especially since Miss Siddiqui is not in that organization," he said.

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