King of Arundel

Our view: Strip away the salacious details of the indictment against John Leopold, and you have a case about the misuse of public resources for private purposes

March 05, 2012

The indictment State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt secured against Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold is positively tawdry. It includes accusations about his intimate relationships that call to mind Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr's report about former President Bill Clinton. That's a connection Mr. Leopold's attorney seems intent on making in another context: He has painted the entire effort by Mr. Davitt as a rogue investigation by a politically motivated, unaccountable prosecutor intent on personally embarrassing the county executive.

But if we strip away all of the salacious details in the indictment, it is clear that there are serious issues at stake. We have at present only the prosecution's side of the story, and it is important to bear in mind that we are dealing with accusations, not facts that have been proven in court. Mr. Leopold denies any wrongdoing and has yet to offer a detailed defense. But he cannot dismiss the gravity of the actual misconduct he is being charged with. This is not a smear job about the unsavory details of Mr. Leopold's private life but a question of whether he viewed Anne Arundel County as his personal fiefdom and its workers as his serfs.

The first set of charges in the indictment center on whether he used employees paid by the taxpayers to further his own re-election campaign. Previous reporting on this issue had already raised concern — Mr. Leopold, despite his rising political profile, had maintained the same shoestring campaign organization he used while a member of the House of Delegates. He had no paid campaign staff but instead relied on the volunteer efforts of his aides in county government. That was suspicious — how can one gauge whether those workers were volunteering out of conviction or because they assumed the boss expected it, and how can we be assured that no campaign work was being done on county time? But if the evidence Mr. Davitt presented to a grand jury turns out to be true, then the mixing of public and campaign efforts by Mr. Leopold was much more extensive than previously known.

The indictment says Mr. Leopold ordered members of his executive protection detail, who are Anne Arundel County police officers, to put up and take down his campaign signs, to collect campaign checks for him and to deposit them in the bank. That would cross a clear line forbidding elected officials from using public resources for purely political aims.

Mr. Davitt also accuses Mr. Leopold of tearing down campaign signs for his opponent, Joanna L. Conti, while being driven around the county by his executive protection detail. In one occasion, Mr. Davitt accuses Mr. Leopold of calling a trooper to his house before dawn and ordering the policeman to drive him to several Conti sign sites where he exited the car, removed the signs and rendered them invisible to passing motorists. It is commonplace for political candidates to accuse their opponents of tearing down campaign signs, but prosecutions for the offense are rare. If true, though, this would be an extraordinary case of someone doing it in front of a police officer.

Mr. Leopold is also accused of ordering the policemen assigned to protect him to compile dossiers on two of his political opponents, Ms. Conti and Carl Snowden, even though the officers did not consider them a threat to the executive's safety. Aside from suggesting a Nixonian paranoia, it would also amount to commandeering county resources for political purposes. Making matters worse, the indictment says, the troopers complained to the police chief and Mr. Leopold's chief of staff about some of the campaign tasks they were given, but neither official did anything to stop it.

Mr. Davitt's case might have been more difficult for Mr. Leopold and his attorney to dismiss if he had stopped there. But the indictment goes on to describe Mr. Leopold's supposed use of his executive protection officers and other county workers to arrange liaisons with a county employee and to prevent his live-in girlfriend from finding out about the second woman. Mr. Davitt claims those efforts cost the county thousands of dollars in police overtime. But perhaps the most personally damaging detail in Mr. Davitt's indictment is the charge that Mr. Leopold ordered county officers and an aide in his office to change his urinary catheter bag after two back surgeries.

Although Mr. Leopold's defenders are apt to seize on those elements of the indictment to paint the entire thing an effort to embarrass the executive, they do follow the pattern of the earlier accusations. In all cases, the charges revolve around Mr. Leopold using county resources for his private benefit. It is the behavior of a king, not a county executive, and Mr. Leopold should be forced to answer for it.

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