Leopold found guilty of misconduct, suspended from office

Aide takes over; county council calls meeting to consider ouster

January 29, 2013|By Matthew Hay Brown and Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

A judge found Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold guilty Tuesday of two counts of misconduct for using public employees to perform political and personal tasks, and he was suspended from office while the County Council made plans to force him out permanently.

Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney said the two-term Republican broke the law when he directed his taxpayer-funded police protection detail to put up campaign signs, collect contributions and compile dossiers on adversaries during his 2010 re-election campaign, and when he required county workers to empty the urinary catheter bag he used after back surgery.

By using "free public employee help" for his campaign, Sweeney said, Leopold "was placing his thumb on the scales of our political system" and "robbed Anne Arundel County citizens of the fair political and electoral process they were entitled to receive."

Sweeney called Leopold's demands that police officers and his scheduler change his catheter bag several times per day "simply outrageous, egregious and wildly beyond any authority he possessed or could reasonably thought he had obtained by virtue of his office."

Leopold, 69, stood with his hands clasped behind his back as Sweeney read his verdict.

The judge, who heard the case without a jury, found Leopold guilty of two counts of misconduct in office.

He found Leopold not guilty of another count of misconduct, for directing police to take him to a bowling alley parking lot for sexual liaisons with a county employee, and one count of fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Leopold spoke briefly to reporters outside Anne Arundel Circuit Courthouse in Annapolis.

"Humbled by the verdict," he said.

Defense attorney Bruce Marcus did not say whether they planned to appeal.

"Loser!" shouted a passing motorist.

Sweeney said he would consult with prosecutors and defense attorneys before setting a date for sentencing. Judges have broad leeway in sentencing for misconduct because the charge carries no specific sanction.

Chief Administrative Officer John Hammond took over as acting county executive, and County Council Chairman Jerry Walker, a Republican, called an emergency meeting for Wednesday afternoon to introduce a bill to remove Leopold from office.

The verdict put an exclamation point on a case that riveted the county and state and. appeared to imperil the long career of a man who a year ago was entertaining the possibility of a run for statewide office.

Leopold's attorneys did not dispute what they called "salacious" and "tabloid-like" allegations during the two-week trial, but argued that they reflected poor judgment, not criminal wrongdoing.

State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said he was "very pleased" with the verdict, and said Sweeney had convicted Leopold on "the two major counts."

Two adversaries on whom Leopold ordered dossiers expressed relief. Joanna Conti, Leopold's Democratic challenger in 2010, and Carl O. Snowden, a former civil rights director for the state attorney general, both sat in the courtroom for the verdict.

"He used police officers similar to the way [former FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover did," Snowden said. "It was wrong then and it's wrong now."

Snowden said he plans to move forward with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Leopold and the county. He had previously filed notice of the suit with the county.

Conti said the verdict had restored her faith in the democratic process.

"Now it's up to the County Council," she said.

After the meeting Wednesday, the council is expected to hold a public hearing and vote Monday on the bill to remove Leopold. A provision in the County Charter allows the council to oust the executive for crimes of "moral turpitude." At least five of the seven members must agree for the measure to pass.

County spokesman David Abrams said Leopold was suspended under the Maryland Constitution, which was amended by voters last year to require the suspension of elected officials upon conviction of a crime.

It was unclear whether Leopold's case would in fact fall under the amendment, because he was indicted before state voters approved the measure in November. Without the amendment, the suspension would not be in effect. Typically, public officials are removed from office after sentencing.

Leopold had signed an executive order on Monday designating the chief administrative officer as acting county executive "in the event of my temporary disability or absence from the County."

If Leopold is removed from office, it will be up to the County Council to select a replacement from the Republican Party.

In closing arguments earlier Tuesday, Davitt described Leopold as an intimidating boss who knew from his long experience as an elected official in Hawaii and Maryland that it was wrong to direct public employees to run his personal and political errands.

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