Staffers struggle to balance campaign, public duties

Arundel's Leopold faces investigation of his use of police detail

March 26, 2011|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

Like any incumbent politician running for re-election, Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold had to strike a delicate balance last year between running his administration and spearheading a campaign.

He relied on volunteers, including some top aides, in his successful campaign, according to campaign finance records and interviews, and did not hire any paid staff — a strategy that some experts and politicians caution against.

Leopold is the subject of an investigation into whether he used county police officers on his security detail to do campaign work, but the struggle to manage political and official duties is familiar to many in Maryland politics.

To avoid the appearance of a conflict — public employees working on a campaign — Baltimore-area officials said it was necessary to have at least some paid workers on a re-election bid. Some used volunteer labor from their staff to help with campaign activities, but also hired outside help. Others moved key advisers out of the government and into campaign jobs.

"If I were a county executive, there's no way I would have volunteers from my staff working for me. I would be inviting an ethics inquiry," said Todd Eberly, the interim director at the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "Just the appearance of impropriety can really erode public trust in government."

All local, state and municipal employees have the right to participate in political activity, but they can't be required to do so, and can't do the work during their work day, according to Maryland law. For example, Eberly said, a county employee would be prohibited from using county phones or computers to conduct campaign business during the work day.

Steve Reigle, the volunteer treasurer for Leopold's re-election campaign, said several county staffers, including Erik Robey, Brenda Reiber and Mark Chang, also volunteered on the campaign. But the campaign work always came after regular work hours, according to Reigle.

"We'd meet at like 8 o'clock at night a couple of times a week," said Reigle, who works in purchasing for a private company. "If it was during the day, I did it, because I'm not a county employee."

Leopold has said he may have directed a member of his security detail to pick up a campaign donation, without much thought to the implications. But he has denied any wrongdoing, and said he believes the complaints that led to the ongoing investigation are politically motivated. He declined to comment for this article.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat, who also won re-election last year, said he "felt strongly" about having paid staff that was "accountable." He said he employed a handful of paid employees and relied on hundreds of volunteers, including county employees, who participated only during nonwork hours.

"We worked really hard to keep them separate," said Ulman. "It was challenging at times. When you're in the office, you might be going to an event that's county-business related, and there's a political element to it, and a reporter's there asking you campaign questions. … It's something you have to be vigilant about and do your best to monitor."

Rick Abbruzzese, a long-time member of Gov. Martin O'Malley's communications staff, left state government to work for the governor's re-election campaign last year. After O'Malley's election victory, Abbruzzese returned to his job in state government.

Leopold's county spokesman, Dave Abrams, doubled as campaign spokesman last year. Abrams directed reporters to call him with campaign-related queries on a different cellphone from his county-issued one, in an effort to draw a distinction between the two roles. He also advised reporters that he would need to step outside his office in order to return phone calls.

Jared DeMarinis, director of the state board of elections, said the law is clear.

"If you're at your office, doing your government job, you can't be engaging in political activity," he said. "If you do it on your weekends, you're on your time. You can volunteer in political activities. No problem. You just can't do it on the job during working hours."

Harford County Executive David R. Craig, a Republican who was re-elected last year, set up a campaign headquarters a couple of blocks from the county office building and employed one paid staffer, who did not work for the county, said Craig's spokesman, Robert Thomas.

County employees who volunteered for the Craig campaign participated after work and on the weekends, and were required to take documented leave from their jobs in order to attend events if necessary, said Thomas. He said he occasionally received calls from reporters about campaign topics and referred the inquiries to the campaign spokesperson.

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