Letter delivers knockout

Sheriff's resignation follows unsigned memo

Maryland Votes 2006

May 07, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

By many accounts, the accusation that Sheriff R. Thomas Golding's staff was soliciting campaign support within the agency is a traditional election-year claim and hardly seemed capable of imperiling his candidacy.

But Golding, who complained that the campaign was growing "nasty, to say the least," was more concerned that it would become even uglier, many in the agency said, perhaps revisiting the messy departure of his predecessor, Joseph P. Meadows, whose downfall he had worked to distance the agency from.

A reluctant candidate from the start, the Republican quietly - and quickly - opted out.

On Thursday morning, he called members of his command staff into a first-floor conference room in the Sheriff's Office headquarters. Some knew what he was about to tell them; most did not.

Sitting at the head of the table, Golding soberly informed them that he was dropping out of the race for sheriff. The campaign had become too dirty, he told them, and he did not want to be held responsible for torn allegiances within the department.

While there had been grumblings of low morale within the agency and a culture of fear, an anonymous letter sent last week allegedly from within the agency to the Harford Board of Elections was thought to be designed as a wake-up call for Golding - not the knockout punch to his campaign.

The letter made claims of "blatant electioneering" during business hours. It also detailed an April 27 incident in which an employee allegedly asked another worker to consider purchasing a ticket to Golding's breakfast fundraiser.

In his statement, Golding complained about the tenor of the campaign. "The obvious rancor and certain low-level, underhanded tactics will only increase and further damage the image of the office. This I cannot allow, nor will I be a party to it," he said.

State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said Golding's bowing out made him "sick."

"It's sad that you can chase a good person out of a race by slinging mud," he said.

To sheriff hopeful Dave Tritt, though, Golding failed to take responsibility for the alleged intimidation. Through a spokesman, Golding had brushed off the claims, acknowledging that employees were casually approached and had been in past elections - it was a convenient way to solicit support, which was not intended to intimidate, he said.

Tritt said that if anyone was "shaking down deputies in the hallway, if they're doing stuff like this, it's a serious claim."

L. Jesse Bane, who has worked with Golding at the agency since the 1970s and recently stepped down to run for sheriff as a Democrat, said he wasn't sure what prompted Golding to withdraw but agreed that the race should stay clean.

"His family is on my mind, because I know this is probably a difficult time for them and certainly is not something anybody should be jumping up and down about," Bane said.

Another candidate, Terry W. Serago, has filed to run as a Democrat.

Those close to Golding said he viewed the anonymous letter as a glimpse into the tactics his opponents would employ. References to his tenure as undersheriff under Meadows would have been particularly stinging, they said.

Golding declined interview requests to discuss his decision, and he did not mention a particular opponent in his statement.

Golding was appointed in 2003 to take over for Meadows, who resigned amid a criminal investigation by the state prosecutor. A female employee later settled a sexual harassment suit against the county worth more than $200,000. Meadows was named in the suit.

At his swearing-in, Golding said he had never imagined becoming sheriff but said the governor's choice to promote from within the agency was meaningful to the staff, and he would run the office with the input of fellow officers. "This is a team effort," Golding said.

During his tenure, the county grappled with the rise of gang violence along U.S. 40. Golding formed a gang suppression unit and pushed for grant money and training for officers to combat the problem, and he lobbied County Executive David R. Craig for a new southern precinct in Edgewood.

Felony crimes dropped by 19 percent last year. The agency added 20 deputies last year and is poised to receive 20 more next year in Craig's proposed budget. Golding's long-term plans included a multiyear hiring plan and a state-of-the-art training facility near Harford Community College.

Though he had never run a campaign before, Golding appeared to be barreling forward. He had held numerous fundraisers, and two more were scheduled, including one this week. According to campaign finance figures, Golding had raised $58,000 as of January and had $38,000 on hand.

But late Wednesday, rumors that he was stepping down began to circulate. That night, recently appointed campaign spokesman Edward Hopkins said he had not talked to Golding in three days, and Robert B. Thomas, the agency spokesman and a member of his election committee, professed to having no knowledge of an announcement.

Meanwhile, Golding was working behind the scenes to line up a strong candidate to run in his stead - Gary McLhinney, the chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority police and a Bel Air resident. McLhinney told The Sun he is considering entering the race.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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