Weeks after being publicly pressured to repay legal fees, Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold announced Wednesday that he will pay back taxpayers if he loses a pending sex discrimination case brought by a former employee.

The private, $450-an-hour attorney hired to represent Leopold ran up a $21,000 tab to taxpayers during two weeks in August, raising questions about whether the embattled executive should accept a defense on the public dime.

A Republican state lawmaker publicly called on Leopold, a Republican, to promise to repay the rising costs if found guilty, but Leopold answered with an Oct. 1 letter calling Sen. Bryan Simonaire a hypocrite. Simonaire began crafting a state law to compel Leopold to repay the fees, and a similar measure is pending before the Anne Arundel County Council.

On Wednesday, the day after The Baltimore Sun requested an invoice for September's legal fees, Leopold released a statement promising to repay public coffers if he loses.

"I want the taxpayers to rest assured, however, knowing ahead of time that I would never allow them to pay my attorney fees if there is an unfavorable court ruling," he said in the statement.

Leopold put caveats on the promise: He will not pay any settlements related to the case — which could exceed $300,000, based on damages sought by the former employee — and he won't pay legal fees if the county settles without his permission.

"That's less than what I would require in my legislation," said Simonaire, who called Leopold's move "a step in the right direction."

"I would have preferred for him to just say, 'If I lose the case, I'll pay it back' — not all the rest of these exceptions."

Leopold said that he believes he did nothing wrong and that he does not expect the county to lose the case, which is entering its third year in litigation. Leopold's former press aide, Karla R. Hamner, sued him and the county, alleging that Leopold, angry over her hairstyle, grabbed her and shook her. He then fired her for complaining about the way he treated women, she alleged.

Experts said Leopold's offer to repay only the fees, and doing so under pressure, will generate little political good will.

"This is a cloud that is going to hang over his political future forever, and there's no way to shake that," said Todd Eberly, political science professor at St. Mary's College. Even if the case goes to trial and Leopold wins, Eberly said, "it's hard to shake that people remember, 'Oh, yeah, he was sued for mistreatment of women.' "

Until August, county attorneys represented Leopold in the case.

County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson has said state laws required a separate attorney for Leopold when it appeared that Leopold's interests and those of the government were no longer the same. While the county still represents Leopold on some matters, the county executive's new counsel, Thatcher Law Firm, was hired days after four police officers gave depositions that said Leopold directed police to ensure that Hamner would not get a permanent job at the county Police Department.

Those depositions conflicted with an account from an affidavit filed two years ago by another police officer, leading County Councilman Jamie Benoit to ask the Anne Arundel County state's attorney to investigate possibly perjury.

Benoit, a Democrat from Crownsville, has also led the effort to pass a bill requiring the county to recoup losses if an employee's deliberate behavior puts Anne Arundel on the losing end of a lawsuit. While Benoit supports current state laws that require the government to defend public officials, those who are found at fault should be held accountable, he said. The measure has drawn bipartisan support, and councilmen expect it to become law despite Leopold's public announcement.

"I certainly think it's the responsible thing to do," Council Chairman Derek Fink, a Republican from Pasadena, said of Leopold's promise. "I don't think the taxpayers should be on the hook for that. As far as our bill goes, if I was a betting man, I'd say it passes in two weeks."

The civil case is separate from a lawsuit brought by another former aide who accused Leopold of firing her for helping Hamner build a case against him. Both civil actions are unrelated to a pending criminal misconduct case, which alleges that Leopold used detectives on his police detail to uproot campaign signs, ferry him to sexual rendezvous with a county employee and compile dossiers on his political enemies.

Leopold has denied wrongdoing in all civil and criminal matters. He is paying his criminal defense attorney.

County officials said they would release next week an invoice for the September legal fees charged by the firm of Linda Hitt Thatcher for representing Leopold in the Hamner case. Leopold's promise Wednesday would not cover the more than $300,000 Hamner seeks in damages, nor her attorneys fees, if Leopold loses the suit.

"Linda Hitt Thatcher charged $21,000 for two weeks," said Hamner's attorney, John Singleton. "I've been working on this case for two years. You can imagine that my fees are significantly more than that."

Dan Nataf, political science professor at Anne Arundel Community College, said Leopold's promise sends dual messages to constituents, who may be on the hook for paying Hamner's back wages and other damages.

"It seems like he is saying that he's confident that he won't [lose the lawsuit] and thus he's willing to put money on the line," Nataf said. "On the other hand, he's not willing to risk everything and pay all these other legal costs."

Leopold's public statement was accompanied by a letter dated Oct. 8 to the county's Self-Insurance Fund Committee, which oversees legal settlements, promising to repay legal fees and spelling out his caveats.

University of Baltimore law professor Byron Warnken said the letter and public statements are not legally binding.

Warnken said that nothing prevents Leopold from later changing his mind. Legal fees in such cases, Warnken said, can easily exceed $100,000.

"It may well be that he's reading the tea leaves and sees that this is going to be enacted" as law, Warnken said. "And he figures, 'If I have to pay it anyway, I might as well take the high road.' It gives him a chance to show how strongly he believes in his innocence."

Leopold and his spokesman declined to discuss the matter further. In his statement, Leopold pointed out that a previous discrimination complaint against him had been dismissed by the court.

"There is an important reason for the government to provide for a defense for its employees, which is to guard against intimidation of public servants by people who file frivolous and meritless lawsuits such as the one already dismissed by the court," Leopold said in a statement. "Absent this protection, the best candidates for public positions would have to think twice about serving."

ecox@baltsun.com