Facing re-election, Leopold hit with sexual harassment suit

Former Anne Arundel worker alleges that county executive sexually harassed female employees

August 24, 2010|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

As he prepares for a re-election fight this fall, Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold finds himself beset with a $300,000 sexual harassment, discrimination and workplace retaliation lawsuit from a former employee.

This is not the first time the unmarried 67-year-old Leopold has been accused of inappropriate conduct. Last year, he was accused of sexually harassing a state employee at the county headquarters, and an anonymous 911 caller also reported possible sexual activity in what turned out to be Leopold's government-issued car. He was not charged with a crime in either case.

The latest claims are from Karla R. Hamner, who worked for Leopold for more than a year ending in 2008. She alleges in a suit filed Tuesday in Circuit Court that Leopold made unwanted sexual advances toward her and once grabbed her by her arms and screamed at her because he disliked her hairstyle. Hamner says those incidents resulted in "anxiety, fear and depression."

"Virtually all of the women who worked in the county executive's office were terrified and terrorized by Leopold," reads the complaint, filed by Owings Mills attorney John M. Singleton. Hamner first made the allegations last year, following the state employee's allegations.

Though Leopold's alleged conduct suggests a pattern to some, political observers say voters, especially in times of economic distress, are much more likely to cast ballots based on an incumbent's job performance than personality defects.

Leopold's general popularity in a Republican-majority county and his Democratic opponent's newcomer status should help him, said Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.

"The election is a referendum on how well he's able to maintain the level of services without raising taxes in the economic downturn," said Nataf. "This lawsuit, it's a 'he said, she said' sort of thing. There's smoke, but is there fire?"

County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson, speaking on behalf of Leopold, rebutted the claims.

"The allegations made by Ms. Hamner are absolutely false, and we deny them all," said Hodgson. "I had numerous conversations with her attorney over the past several months about this case. It was [Singleton's] desire to settle the matter."

Hodgson said the county did not settle because "we have never considered this case to have any merit, and we believe that the timing of this filing indicates a political motivation."

Leopold, popular for his dedication to constituent services, is facing Annapolis business executive Joanna Conti, a Democrat, in his re-election bid. Conti, who has never held political office, is new to Maryland. Leopold, who served in the House of Delegates for 20 years before becoming county executive in 2006, has seven times more campaign cash on hand than Conti.

The Conti campaign, which declined to comment on the suit, has not used the incidents as campaign fodder. Nataf said it would be difficult for Conti to gain traction with the issue.

"It's just so off message," said Nataf. "Conti needs to stick with her mantra of, 'I'm qualified to be the county executive.'"

Kathy Reiner Martin, who heads the Baltimore-based Democratic Women's PAC, sent out a statement charging that allegations of "blatant mistreatment" have been "brushed under the carpet."

"How many different so-called 'rumors and innuendos' can we ignore before Leopold has to answer to the public on this?" she asked.

Steve Thibodeu, chairman of the Anne Arundel County Democratic Party, called the lawsuit the "latest chapter in the John Leopold saga of allegations of misconduct."

"Up until now, the voters have settled for his denials," Thibodeu said in a statement. "That time is over. Our county demands a leader that is honest and transparent and John Leopold needs to come clean about what's really been going on in his office."

C. Edward Middlebrooks, the Republican chairman of the County Council, said the allegations are old.

"People are going to look at the timing of it as a little suspicious," said Middlebrooks, who added, "Of course, if it's true, it would be damaging."

Hamner alleged that because she complained to her immediate supervisor about the alleged harassment, she was transferred to the Police Department and ultimately fired.

In an initial job interview, Leopold told Hamner, according to the complaint, "If you were single, I'd ask you out, because you just seem like you're a lot of fun."

Hamner began working as the special assistant to the chief administrative officer in 2007.

In April 2008, while Hamner was acting public information officer, she alleged, Leopold assaulted her in his office.

The complaint said Leopold "abruptly stopped, turned toward Hamner and grabbed her by both of her upper arms, twisted her around so that she faced him and yelled into her face, 'I want you to turn and face me, like this. And get your hair out of your face!'

Singleton said he filed a complaint with the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May 2009, and approached Leopold to settle the case as early as April of this year. The EEOC is still investigating, he said.

Hamner, who lives in Kentucky, could not be reached for comment.

Leopold treated women "in a demanding, intimidating, and oftentimes demeaning fashion," the complaint said. Female employees holding the title of "special assistant" were referred to as "Leopold's angels," the complaint said, "due to his preference for attractive women."


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