Anne Arundel county executive sued on sex discrimination claim

Complaint says Leopold mistreated female employees

March 16, 2012|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

A former Anne Arundel County employee filed a $2.5 million lawsuit Friday against embattled County Executive John R. Leopold, alleging that he discriminated against female employees, pressured workers to make campaign donations and retaliated against those he viewed as disloyal.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by Joan M. Harris, alleges that Leopold was "demeaning and intimidating" toward women for much of the time she worked for the county. She was a constituent services specialist from December 2006 to Nov. 3, 2010 — the day after Leopold won re-election.

Leopold, according to the suit, pressured Harris and other employees to donate to his re-election campaign, and when she resisted, she was accused of being disloyal. After another employee sued Leopold, Harris was dubbed a "mole" and left out of staff meetings and other activities before being fired, the suit says.

"Female employees were cautioned that Leopold did not like women who complained and that they should always appear happy and smiling around the county executive," the suit says.

Leopold, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment. County Attorney Jonathan A. Hodgson said he had received notice from the court Friday afternoon that the lawsuit had been filed but had not yet reviewed it and had no comment.

The lawsuit, which alleges gender discrimination, retaliation, a violation of Harris' First Amendment rights and retaliatory termination, comes as the county executive faces criminal charges relating to his conduct as an elected official. Leopold, 69, was indicted and charged this month on four counts of misconduct in office and one count of misappropriation of county funds.

The indictment alleges that Leopold directed his taxpayer-funded executive protection detail to perform personal tasks, including transporting him to frequent sexual rendezvous with a county employee. The indictment also said the police detail was used to gather information on his political foes.

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland called on Leopold and county Police Chief Col. James E. Teare Sr. to "come clean" about the alleged use of a statewide police database to compile information on political enemies.

In response to a Maryland Public Information Act request, the Police Department released documents this week that were part of files Leopold allegedly directed his executive protection detail to maintain. Most of the information — on a recent political opponent, a former county councilman and a state worker — was readily available in public records.

But the county said it withheld some documents because they were from the state's Criminal Justice Information System, a database used by police departments to run criminal history checks.

Both department policy and state law prohibit accessing the system for uses other than official police business.

In addition to the files made public this week on four alleged Leopold opponents, the ACLU said that it is also asking the county for additional documents related to the "enemies list." That includes files on a number of local politicians — as well as Harris and Karla R. Hamner, a former county employee who is the plaintiff in a pending $10 million federal gender discrimination lawsuit against Leopold.

John M. Singleton, Harris' attorney, also represents Hamner in her lawsuit. Harris had attempted to be added as a party to the Hamner lawsuit, but a judge blocked the move.

Leopold has denied any wrongdoing in the Hamner case.

"The evidence strongly suggests that Mr. Leopold compelled police and county staff to conduct political opposition research on the taxpayers' dime, and that he might even have ordered police to improperly access a criminal history database to dig up dirt on his political rivals," ACLU of Maryland legal director Deborah A. Jeon said in a statement. "Now, the time has come for the County Executive and Police Chief to come clean, by letting the public know the full story of what has occurred on their watch."

Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which is the custodian of the database, said the agency has "no way of knowing why a particular CJIS search is conducted by an access agency." He said the agency conducts audits to ensure proper usage of the database.

Binetti said the agency had not been "made aware" of any "unauthorized or inappropriate" search of the database by county police or the Maryland state prosecutor, and therefore had not begun an investigation.

"However, DPSCS will cooperate and assist with any investigations conducted by either," Binetti said.

Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the allegation that Leopold used county and police resources to keep files on political opponents was "deeply concerning."

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