Leopold indictment further clouds Arundel political scene

ElectionsPoliticsLocal GovernmentMedia IndustryAnne Arundel CountyAnnapolis

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold was smiling and upbeat Saturday after eating at a diner in his hometown, part of a county he has led for more than five years and where he now faces the political and legal fight of his career.

Just one day before, Leopold was indicted on corruption charges alleging he used his taxpayer-funded security detail to arrange sexual liaisons and to defeat political adversaries. But he didn't want to discuss the allegations on his way out of the Double T Diner in Pasadena. He said he'll save that for court.

"There are lots of things I would like to talk to you about, but I can't," said Leopold, a second-term Republican, as he made his way to his county-issued black Chevrolet Impala, which he drove himself. "The county's going to function just as it always has."

His reticence certainly won't stop others from talking. The bombshell allegations have dominated headlines and news broadcasts — as well as Twitter and other online chats, not to mention dinner and diner table conversations — the latest storm in a county already struggling with political instability.

The County Council has been in an ugly standoff for weeks, unable to select a replacement for Councilman Daryl D. Jones, who was booted from the council when he reported to prison on a tax violation. Deliberations over who should take his seat have been marked by shouting and allegations of racial insensitivity — one councilman used an ethnic slur at a recent public meeting.

It's all too much for some in the county, which boasts several Baltimore suburbs, more than 500 miles of shoreline and the seat of Maryland government. For Bea Colhouer, a retired pharmacy technician from Crownsville, the allegations against Leopold tipped the scale.

"Our politicians in Anne Arundel County have really been disappointing," said Colhouer, after eating lunch Saturday at the same Pasadena diner. "I can see why some people don't even bother paying attention. Leopold — he's a jerk. He should have known better. He needs to go."

The county executive was indicted by a grand jury and charged Friday with four counts of misconduct in office and one count of fraudulent misappropriation. According to an indictment from the office of Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt, Leopold directed the officers assigned to his executive protection unit to perform duties including emptying his urinary catheter as he recovered from back surgery.

O. James Lighthizer, a Democrat who served as county executive in Anne Arundel from 1982 to 1990, said Leopold's indictment, coupled with the council's recent antics, presents a "very unfortunate" set of circumstances for the county government to grapple with.

"There's certainly a lot of turmoil," said Lighthizer. "The county government can run on autopilot for a long time — it's not the end of the world. But it all, unfortunately, doesn't make anybody in the county government look good."

Some in the community were sticking with their county executive. George Stratakos, the assistant manager of the diner, offered Leopold a free meal, calling him a "loyal customer." Leopold refused and paid his $16.38 check for tilapia and eggs over easy with two crisp $10 bills.

Janet Stroup, a Pasadena homemaker, said as she left the diner she thought the indictment went too far. "Why pick on him?" asked Stroup. "Maybe he should be fined or something. He gets things done. Men are men and men are dogs. I'm not surprised."

Stroup, who said she has voted for Leopold, added, "I think it's politically motived. In a Democratic state — absolutely."

Leopold was first elected county executive in 2006, and before that served for two decades in the House of Delegates. He was previously elected to the Hawaii Legislature and ran for governor unsuccessfully there in 1978.

According to the indictment, Leopold directed the officers assigned to his executive protection unit to transport him to destroy campaign signs of a political opponent and to perform personal chores. He is accused of using an officer on his detail to keep his live-in girlfriend from meeting a county employee with whom he was having an "intimate relationship." That task cost the county more than $10,000 in police overtime, the indictment says.

Leopold's attorney, Bruce L. Marcus, has seized on the notion that politics are at play. He declined to comment Saturday, but said Friday that people should "question the reasons and motivation" for releasing some of the detail's of Leopold's alleged behavior.

Leopold has vowed to fight the charges and said he will not step down from office.

O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police, said the indictment has "cast a dark cloud over this department."

"A while ago, I was told by his drivers that Leopold did things that would shock the conscience," said Atkinson, who said the officers who testified are "very concerned" about the possibility of retribution. The county is currently in contract negotiations with the union.

"Leopold seems to be making light of this in some of the comments he's made, and the County Council is appearing to give him the benefit of the doubt. It's very concerning to us."

The indictment alleges that the officers complained to superiors — including Police Chief Col. James Teare Sr. — about working conditions under Leopold, but their concerns went unanswered. Teare could not be reached for comment Saturday.

As the Leopold scandal broke, the Republican-dominated County Council largely remained silent. Two Democratic members of the County Council spoke in measured remarks about the seriousness of the allegations but also cautioned to let the legal process play itself out. The council's four Republicans have declined to comment.

The council is poised Monday night to meet for the third time in hopes of selecting a replacement for Jones, a Democrat. Voters in the district have expressed frustration at being without a voting member

"I don't understand the County Council," said Geraldine Lippman, president of the Cedar Morris Hill Improvement Association in Glen Burnie. "If you look at what's going on, you ask yourself, 'What kind of common sense do they have?' They're not using it. I want to ask them, 'How did y'all get in these positions?' You can't even make a decision."

Woody Bowen, president of the Olde Brooklyn Park Improvement Association, said though Jones' full-time council aide, Linda Harris, has assisted him with issues in Jones' absence, it's imperative for the district to have a voting member in time for the annual county budget debate.

"If it's taken these gentleman this long to get this resolved, I hope they don't intend to run for office again, because we're going to remember this," said Bowen. "This is just disgusting. … It's ridiculous this has gone on for so long."

Donald F. Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that despite Leopold's insistence that his legal troubles won't diminish his capacity as a political leader, allegations of impropriety will loom large over county government.

"The real issue is whether the county administration can continue to function with this kind of cloud hanging over the county executive," said Norris. "It's going to affect absolutely everything he says and does. … There's no way around it. When he tries to stay in office and wait for a trial, during that period of time, county government is going to be on trial."

In Leopold's Pasadena neighborhood of townhouses, neighbors said the 69-year-old is a quiet presence.

Kathy Harden, who owns a photography business and moved two houses away from Leopold last summer from Catonsville, said she sometimes sees Leopold taking walks around the grounds. He almost always picks up litter along the way and then puts it in the trash. When it snows, the parking lot outside the development is cleared quickly, a perk she attributed to living near Leopold.

She said she was disappointed by the allegations. "I have four daughters, and I want them to know that's not acceptable behavior," she said.

At the downtown Annapolis restaurant Chick & Ruths Delly, which features pictures of scores of politicians and celebrities on its walls — and where most of the state's elected officials have dishes named in their honor — Leopold chicken soup is on the menu.

Tom Reitz, a part-time school bus driver, said he's a registered Democrat, but he voted for Leopold when he ran for re-election.

"I think he's done a fairly good job for the county," said Reitz. "He's worked hard to keep the county budget in line and not let the school budget get totally out of control. But at the end of the day, he's a politician. People in these positions of power really abuse it. They take an elected office and really dump on the people."

Keith Lyon, an Arnold resident and Republican, was having a breakfast of pancakes and eggs with his wife, and discussing the allegations against Leopold they had just read in the paper.

"I don't believe how stupid politicians continue to act," said Lyon.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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