Getting inside the mind of John Leopold

Testimony in county executive corruption case in Annapolis provides anatomy of a tawdry political affair

  • Embattled Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold spoke about his fondest Ravens memory during a break in his criminal misconduct trial.  The Philadelphia native, a regular participant in the annual Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge at Sandy Point State Park, smiled as he remembered talking Philly sports one year with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.  "He's from New Jersey, so he grew up with the Eagles," Leopold said. "I still follow all those teams  Eagles, Phillies, Flyers. But I root for the Ravens, too."
Embattled Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold spoke… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
January 26, 2013|Dan Rodricks

Friday afternoon in a spacious Annapolis courtroom with a flat-screen monitor, Dr. Roy E. Bands Jr., board-certified orthopedic surgeon, presented a side view of John Leopold's lumbar region — how his lower spine, abdomen and bladder looked in January 2010. Too bad the doctor didn't have a scan of the Anne Arundel County executive's prefrontal cortex.

And too bad technology does not exist to tell us what Leopold was thinking when he treated his staff — mostly the police officers assigned to protect him — like a bunch of stooges and lackeys.

Testimony in Leopold's misconduct trial has revealed a bad boss with a bad back that required surgery, but also a longtime politician who seemed to relish having county employees perform menial chores and errands of dubious legality.

This is the poor-man's "All The King's Men," with John Leopold as the cheap, suburban version of Willie Stark. There are no high crimes alleged here, just misdemeanors. The Leopold case is tawdry and pathetic — a tacky strip-mall outside the grand pantheon of Maryland political corruption.

Cops assigned to the executive's taxpayer-funded security unit testified to doing all kinds of personal and political favors for Leopold; they racked up about $10,000 in overtime, the state said.

They collected donations and made campaign phone calls for Leopold. Though they suspected it to be wrong, they put up signs for his re-election. A sergeant said he drove Leopold around Glen Burnie and Pasadena in a predawn mission to uproot his Democratic opponent's campaign signs.

A corporal said he provided weekly cover while Leopold had sex in a car in a bowling alley parking lot. His former scheduler said she had to empty Leopold's urinary catheter bag three times a day for most of a year. Cops had to do that, too.

"Humiliating" was how a member of the security detail described that down-on-the-floor chore.

Leopold's defense attorneys claim this only happened because the poor man needed help after two spinal surgeries. That's why they summoned the orthopedic specialist to testify about Leopold's back and bladder.

But the main thrust of the defense is rooted in law, not anatomy, and goes something like this:

Nobody told John Leopold that having subordinates do this stuff — keeping his mistress from running into his girlfriend, keeping an eye on the cash box at a fundraiser — was wrong. Other executives probably have had cops pick up dry cleaning, too; it defies logic to think otherwise.

The defense has a point: The realm of executive protection has always included travels across the foggy boundaries of official duties and personal business, and unless the lines are clearly drawn in a manual, it's foolish to expect the personal and the official to always be separated.

So what's the big deal if a cop assigned to drive the executive from here to there stops in the parking lot of Arundel Bowl for a few minutes (or however long it takes)? What's wrong with having cops keep watch for an unwelcome hospital visitor so the executive can enjoy a quiet recuperation from surgery?

Leopold's two attorneys, Bruce Marcus and Robert Bonsib, have argued that their 69-year-old client displayed "poor judgment" and a "lack social grace," but his behavior did not rise to official misconduct.

And besides, Bonsib argued, misconduct in Maryland is constitutionally vague — as vague as the federal law that made it a crime to deprive the public of "the intangible right of honest services." The Supreme Court greatly narrowed the scope of that statute just a couple of years ago, in the fraud conviction of former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling.

But Judge Dennis M. Sweeney pushed back Bonsib's argument. Misconduct — corrupt behavior by a public official "under the color of office" — is set out in common law and is hundreds of years old, Sweeney said, and it has been upheld numerous times by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Bonsib argued that, in the Leopold case, the concept of misconduct had been pushed to "the farthest regions" of prosecutorial discretion. There was no criminal intent, he said, and Leopold's bad-boss behavior should be subject to ballot not indictment.

Mike McDonough, deputy state prosecutor, said there was plenty of evidence that Leopold knew what he was doing was wrong, a point echoed by Sweeney when he noted that Leopold's experience in politics — elected to legislatures in two states, Hawaii and Maryland, then twice as Arundel's executive — should have made him sufficiently aware of the rules and the law.

Sweeney found Leopold not guilty of one charge, but let four others stand. The trial continues this week, and I hope the state knows what it's doing as it sets out to define a new boundary for official misconduct.

These trials are costly. I wonder whether this all could have been settled with a grand jury report made public and a deal to get Leopold to pay restitution and take his pensions. Then again, that presumes he could feel, in the prefrontal cortex, embarrassment enough to resign.

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