In Leopold case, judge draws bright line in the fog

Sweeney distinguishes between the criminal and the merely creepy

January 30, 2013|Dan Rodricks

Those who criticize the John Leopold case — that it was "too much squeeze for too little juice," a waste of taxpayer money — should read the 40-page memorandum by Dennis M. Sweeney, the judge who presided over the Anne Arundel County executive's trial.

It is a superb document that navigates through foggy territory — how and when an elected official deploys the police officers provided by taxpayers for his protection — and draws a clear line between the criminal and the just creepy, between use and abuse. It is worth every penny we paid for it.

The Leopold case took us on new ground for political mischief; we hadn't been here before.

Those familiar with the long history of Maryland corruption expect to hear testimony about bribes, kickbacks, extortion plots or mail fraud.

There's nothing like that in State of Maryland v. John R. Leopold.

Instead, the state prosecutor alleged that Leopold was guilty of misconduct for using members of his executive protection unit to engage in political activities, drive him to sexual encounters, empty the urine from his catheter, and keep his girlfriend and mistress from running into each other at a hospital — that sort of stuff.

While the charges against Leopold sounded offensive, they also sounded silly. When the indictment came down in March last year, we were all a little shocked, but, relative to traditional political corruption, the details of the Leopold indictment seemed almost absurd.

He had the cops assigned to him to do what?

Eeeew! That's creepy, but is it criminal?

The answer, Sweeney declared Tuesday, was yes and no: Yes, some of what Leopold had county employees do was criminal, some of it not. In the process of delineating the difference, this wise veteran judge granted the people of Maryland the favor of legal clarity on a matter that perhaps had never before been tested.

Plainclothes cops drive county executives, governors and mayors around; they provide them protection. In the course of a shift, a cop on executive duty might transport the boss to a community meeting, a political rally or a convenience store for a Slim Jim. It's not for the cops to judge the propriety of what's on the boss' schedule, Sweeney said, even if it includes a tryst in a parking lot.

Nor, Sweeney noted significantly, is it always for the state prosecutor to decide.

When Leopold had two operations on his back in 2010, he was hospitalized at Anne Arundel Medical Center. The state claimed it was misconduct for Leopold to insist that two county cops work overtime to keep his mistress from visiting him there.

Not so, Sweeney said.

"The Court does not believe it can find criminal misconduct in office because the defendant had one more officer on duty than the state prosecutor thinks is appropriate or that the Defendant should have been satisfied with the private security personnel at the hospital to protect his interests."

Sweeney found bad judgment — not criminal misconduct — in Leopold's request for cops at the hospital.

By contrast, the judge found criminality in Leopold's instruction that the cops assigned to his security detail pick up, distribute, plant in the ground and retrieve his political signs during and after the 2010 campaign.

For months while running for a second term, Leopold put the officers in the untenable position of "being conscripted campaign workers," and he did so even after being warned by some of the officers and a member of his administrative staff that it was wrong.

In fact, Sweeney noted, Leopold was the veteran of many political campaigns, and he should not have needed such warnings.

So Sweeney found Leopold guilty of the misconduct with relation to the political activities — a relatively easy call, in my book.

Sweeney had to make another call on Leopold's criminal liability in the matter of the catheter, about which I and others have made many jokes and snarky comments. For months after his back surgeries, Leopold had the cops assigned to him, as well as his 63-year-old scheduling secretary, Patricia Medlin, empty the bag a few times daily.

Gross, repulsive, demeaning. But a crime?

Sweeney was beautiful here: "Defendant's demands on the officers and Ms. Medlin to care for his catheter bag are simply outrageous, egregious and wildly beyond any authority he possessed or could reasonably thought he had obtained by virtue of his office. ... That Defendant expected the police officers and Ms. Medlin to perform this task for him without comment or complaint demonstrates an overbearing arrogance and sense of entitlement that is unworthy of someone who is supposed to be a public servant."

With particular regard to Ms. Medlin, who feared the loss of her job if she refused to handle the bag, Sweeney found Leopold's conduct "predatory and cruel," revealing his "utter contempt" for the public employees who worked for him.

On the catheter count, Sweeney found the county executive guilty of criminal misconduct, drawing again a line in the fog — a bright line that no Maryland politician can ever again claim he didn't see.

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