By Matthew Hay Brown and Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun
9:21 PM EST, February 1, 2013
John R. Leopold stepped down Friday as Anne Arundel County executive, bringing an apparent end to the decades-long career of an idiosyncratic and charismatic force in Maryland politics who as recently as a year ago was considering a run for statewide office.
The two-term Republican, suspended from his position since his conviction Tuesday on two counts of misconduct in office, announced the decision in a letter to acting County Executive John Hammond.
"After much thought and deliberation, it is with great sadness and personal regret that I advise you of my decision to resign from the Office of County Executive," Leopold said in the typewritten letter. "This decision is the most difficult decision I have ever made, but I know that it is the right one in the best interest of the citizens of Anne Arundel County."
The decision came as the County Council prepared to vote on legislation to oust him. Council Chairman Jerry Walker said the measure, which had been set for a public hearing and vote Monday, would be withdrawn.
"He did the right thing," Walker said.
A county spokesman said he did not know how the resignation would affect Leopold's pension. Anne Arundel voters approved an amendment to the county charter last year to take away the pension of a county executive who is removed by the council for conviction of crimes of moral turpitude, misfeasance or malfeasance. County spokesman Dave Abrams said Leopold was due to receive $8,017 annually.
With the resignation, the council has 30 days to appoint a successor. Several Republicans, including Walker, have expressed interest in the job.
Leopold was found guilty of misconduct Tuesday for directing his police protection detail to put up signs during his 2010 re-election campaign, to collect campaign checks and to compile dossiers on his adversaries, and for having officers and his scheduler drain the urinary catheter bag he used after back surgery that year.
Just as damaging, politically, might have been the counts on which Leopold was found not guilty.
After hearing testimony from police officers and other public employees, Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney found that Leopold had used members of his detail to drive him to a bowling alley parking lot for weekly sexual liaisons with a county worker and to drive him around as he uprooted campaign signs for 2010 challenger Joanna Conti. But the judge said those actions did not amount to criminal misconduct in office.
Leopold, who turns 70 Monday, is to be sentenced March 14.
State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt, who argued the case against Leopold in Anne Arundel Circuit Court, said the resignation was not part of a sentencing deal.
"Under the circumstances, I think it was the appropriate thing to do, but it doesn't affect our sentencing recommendations," Davitt said.
Davitt said he had not decided what to recommend to Sweeney.
Leopold attorney Bruce Marcus said the decision to resign was strictly Leopold's and was not intended to curry favor with Davitt or Sweeney. The defense team is compiling information on Leopold's decades of public service to give to the judge before sentencing.
In his letter, Leopold wrote of his first election to public office 45 years ago and said he had dedicated his life to public service.
The Philadelphia native began his political career in Hawaii, where in 1968 he became the first Republican to win election to the state board of education. He later served in the state's House of Representatives and its Senate before an unsuccessful run in 1978 as the Republican nominee for governor.
He also served as a state director for Planned Parenthood, and drew national attention in 1980 when he battled unsuccessfully on the floor of the Republican National Convention to keep the Equal Rights Amendment in the GOP platform.
Leopold moved to Maryland in 1981, and won election to the House of Delegates from Anne Arundel County the next year. He would serve four more terms in the House before his election as county executive in 2006.
In office, Leopold steered the county through the fiscal challenges brought on by recession while butting heads with county employees unions. Supporters praised his constituent service and environmental record.
After winning his second term, he began to talk about running for state comptroller or governor.
"I'm going to keep all those options open," he told The Baltimore Sun in 2011. "The record that I've established of strong fiscal discipline, I think, would resonate not only in Anne Arundel County but elsewhere."
But even then, he was facing a civil lawsuit for alleged gender discrimination.
During his two-week criminal trial, county employees testified that they agreed to his requests for help with political and personal tasks out of fear for their jobs.
Leopold's attorneys called him "enigmatic, idiosyncratic and unconventional." They described him as an unorthodox and independent boss who became dependent on the workers closest to him only after suffering crippling back pain.
"It has been a privilege to represent the citizens of Anne Arundel County for 26 years, both in the General Assembly and as County Executive," he wrote in his resignation letter. "I believe I have made a positive difference in the lives of county residents."
After his conviction this week, some of those residents said it was time for Leopold to go.
"If he's guilty, he's guilty," said Teddy Levitt, owner of Chick and Ruth's Delly in Annapolis, who was considering taking the John R. Leopold — a bowl of chicken soup — off the menu. Levitt said the executive appeared to have "overstepped his bounds."
Maryland Republican Chairman Alex X. Mooney called Leopold's fall "a bad ending to a long career."
"Obviously, it's unfortunate," he said. "He had his hearing, and he will have to face the consequences of what he did. …Now his time is over."
Dan Nataf isn't so sure.
"Never underestimate Leopold's desire to remain in politics," said Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College. Nataf said Leopold might consider a return to the General Assembly in 2014 as a delegate from his old district — and said he might have the skills to pull it off.
Anne Arundel County Council Vice Chairman John Grasso, Leopold's most vocal supporter on the council, said politicians have done worse and found their way back to public favor.
Grasso called Leopold "an upstanding guy who made some bad choices."
"I can tell you that if he runs again, like for the General Assembly, he'll win," the Glen Burnie Republican said.
Councilman Jamie Benoit, Leopold's most vocal council critic, called the resignation "the right thing to do."
"He spared the county another litigious, acrimonious process, and he spared us from another spectacle, and I certainly appreciate that he stepped up and resigned," the Crownsville Democrat said.
Under the county charter, the council has 30 days from Leopold's resignation Friday to replace him with a registered voter of the same party who has lived in the county for the past four years, according to Walker, the council chairman.
Several Republicans had already been considering a run for executive in 2014, when Leopold was to have reached his two-term limit. His resignation has now sped up that process.
State Del. Steve Schuh of Gibson Island and Grasso have said they would apply for the job of completing Leopold's second term. Former U.S. Senate candidate Dan Bongino of Severna Park, state Sen. Ed Reilly of Crofton and Walker, of Gambrills, have said they are considering it.
Council members are expected to advertise the opening and meet with applicants before a final vote. Republicans hold a 4-3 majority on the council. There is no rule preventing Walker or Grasso from voting for themselves.
Hammond, the county's chief administrative officer, has said he would continue as acting executive for as long as the council would have him, but that he would not run for the job in 2014.
Leopold signed an executive order Monday designating Hammond acting county executive "in the event of my temporary disability or absence from the County." Sweeney delivered his verdict Tuesday and the executive was suspended.
Leopold's resignation letter was dated Thursday. He wrote that his resignation would take effect Friday.
"It was a compelling and humbling experience for me to sit through two weeks of the trial and listen intently to the words expressed by the Court," Leopold wrote. "I acknowledge the serious errors in judgment that I made and do not want these errors in judgment to further distract the County from its ability to move forward in a positive way."
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun