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ACLU renews calls for Arundel County Council to investigate Leopold

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland renewed calls Thursday for the Anne Arundel County Council to investigate embattled County Executive John R. Leopold after revelations that a police database containing criminal records may have been illegally accessed at his behest to research political opponents.

Deborah A. Jeon, the ACLU's political director, wrote in a letter to council members that they are "positioned to broadly examine legal and ethical violations that may have occurred." Jeon said Thursday that accessing privileged information in the police database may "constitute a crime."

This week, the county Police Department released documents that were part of files that Leopold allegedly directed his executive protection detail to maintain on his political opponents. The documents were made public under an open-records request by The Baltimore Sun.

Leopold was indicted this month on four counts of misconduct in office and one count of misappropriation of county funds. According to the indictment, he directed his security detail to perform personal and political errands, including investigating political opponents and keeping files on them, and driving him to sexual rendezvous with a county employee.

The documents that were made public included mostly readily available information on a recent political opponent, a former county councilman and a state worker. But the county noted in response to the records request that some documents were being withheld because they were from the state's Criminal Justice Information System, a database used by police departments around the state to run criminal history checks.

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

A spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees the database, did not respond to questions.

Leopold, a Republican, declined to comment Thursday.

Questions directed to the police chief, Col. James E. Teare Sr., who is alleged in the indictment to have known about the allegations, were referred to the county's Office of Law. The county attorney could not be reached for comment.

L. Douglas Ward, director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University, said the Police Department needs to do a full investigation and share its findings in order to ensure public confidence.

"If these allegations are true, it hearkens back to the 1960s and the tactics used to investigate communism," he said. "That's why the policies and laws were changed. Gathering intelligence for political reasons — no elected officials should have the ability to do these kinds of things."

Despite expressing concern, several members of the County Council reacted tepidly to the ACLU's call for an investigation.

Council Chairman Derek Fink, a Pasadena Republican, said that while he is concerned, he wants to reserve judgment.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat, who has authorized the ACLU to investigate whether he is a subject of Leopold's political enemies' files, said he would like county officials to address the situation. But he said he was doubtful that would happen.

"In a perfectly ethical world, the leadership of the county and the Police Department would come forward and tell the world what everyone knew and when and who was ordered to do what," said Benoit. "I'm not optimistic that's going to happen. The hallmarks of the Leopold administration have been evasiveness and secrecy. My expectations in this regard are extraordinary low."

Cpl. O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county's largest police union, said the allegation that officers accessed the system is "concerning." The county's Fraternal Order of Police and another police union representing sergeants and lieutenants have voted no confidence in both Leopold and Teare and called for them to resign.

"There are very strict limitations on that access," said Atkinson. "I think we've established these officers were made to do things that made them very uncomfortable, and they reported those things through the chain of command, and there was no effective action take to prevent them. As a police officer, you have the ability to not follow an order, so it's kind of concerning. But you'd put your job in jeopardy. So that's where it gets tricky."

Councilman John J. Grasso, a Republican, said that while Leopold should probably have paid a consultant to conduct research on political enemies, the information that was gathered may benefit voters. He called the subjects of the dossiers — Joanna L. Conti, who ran against Leopold in 2010; Thomas Redmond, a former county councilman; and Carl O. Snowden, director of the Office of Civil Rights at the state attorney general's office — "questionable people."

"Isn't that kind of like in the interest of the taxpayers?" said Grasso. "Because when it comes up for a political vote, you can pull all the stuff up. In my mind, it's a benefit to the taxpayers to know these people's political past. But I agree that the person who's running should probably foot the bill for it."

Grasso said while police should not be in the business of running the names of people not under criminal investigation through a police database, they might have had good reason. "Maybe they found just cause to investigate," he said.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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