Mr. Leopold and the police

Our view: Anne Arundel County officers need to explain their role in compiling dossiers in the county executive scandal

March 16, 2012

Anne Arundel County's government is operating under a cloud these days. The county council has been deadlocked for weeks over naming a replacement for a former member currently serving time for tax evasion, and County Executive John R. Leopold was indicted this month on charges of misconduct in office and misappropriation of county funds. Now it appears the county police department may be drawn into the mess as a result of questions raised about its role in facilitating Mr. Leopold's alleged wrongdoing.

The revelation that county police officers accessed a statewide criminal records database in an effort to draw up dossiers on Mr. Leopold's political opponents highlights one of the most disturbing aspects of the accusations against him. No matter what happens with Mr. Leopold's case in court, we need a full accounting of who in the police department assisted in the research for the executive's "enemies list," who knew about it and why nothing was done to stop it.

The indictment secured by the state prosecutor accuses Mr. Leopold of using members of his security detail to perform a number of inappropriate personal and political errands on his behalf, including ferrying him to a parking lot for frequent sexual rendezvous with a county employee, emptying a urinary catheter he wore after undergoing back surgery, picking up checks from political contributors and driving him around the county as he destroyed roadside campaign posters put up by his opponent during the last election. Mr. Leopold denies the allegations, saying he will be vindicated in court, and for the most part we have seen no evidence so far to back up the prosecutor's claims.

The charge that Mr. Leopold used county police officers to help him compile dirt on his political opponents is different, however. As a result of a Public Information Act request from The Sun and parallel requests by the ACLU, the department released a number of files Mr. Leopold allegedly directed his taxpayer-funded security detail to compile on county residents, including a former county councilman and his Democratic opponent in the 2010 county executive's race. The documents, which were partially redacted prior to release because they contain sensitive information not available to the public, suggest that officers may have knowingly violated confidentiality rules governing the Maryland Criminal Justice Information System, the statewide police database. If so, that is a problem not only for Mr. Leopold but also for the officers involved in illegally accessing the data for their boss.

The files are bound to figure prominently in the evidence prosecutors present at trial. But quite aside from their impact on Mr. Leopold's case, the fact that officers of the Anne Arundel County police had a hand in gathering and maintaining the dossiers raises serious questions about whether they violated a 2009 state law that restricts police from investigating activities by citizens that are protected by the First Amendment, unless they are part of a criminal probe. That legislation was passed in response to a 2005 Maryland State Police spying operation that targeted dozens of anti-war, animal rights and consumer groups across the state.

There's no indication that any of the people on Mr. Leopold's "enemies list" were being investigated for criminal activity or that they posed a security threat to the country executive. What, then, were the officers in his security detail looking for?

It's expected that candidates for public office will seek to learn as much as possible about their political rivals, especially potentially damaging or embarrassing information they can use to attack an opponent's honesty or credibility during a campaign. Normally such "opposition research," as it is called, is conducted by members of the candidate's own campaign staff or by outside paid political consultants who specialize in turning up dirt on other candidates. But public officeholders are barred from using public employees who work for them to perform such duties, and the employees themselves are prohibited from carrying out such tasks during times when they are supposed to be serving the public.

That's why, in addition to the question of Mr. Leopold's alleged misconduct, there must be a thorough investigation of who ordered county police officers to compile his "enemies list," whether the officers' superiors in the department knew what was going on and why they did nothing to stop it. The police are supposed to protect the public against such malfeasance by public officials, but here they may have been part of the problem.

The indictment alleges that at least some of the officers in Mr. Leopold's security detail told Anne Arundel County Police Chief James E. Teare Sr. that they were troubled by tasks Mr. Leopold asked them to perform, but he apparently took no action. Mr. Teare has refused to answer questions about the matter because of the ongoing legal case against his boss. But his silence allows the honesty and integrity of his entire department to be called into question. The people of Anne Arundel County deserve answers, and they cannot afford to wait until after the case against Mr. Leopold is completed.

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