A state lawmaker on Tuesday challenged Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, a fellow Republican, to repay taxpayers if he loses a gender discrimination case that in two weeks rang up more than $21,000 legal fees.
Leopold neither promised nor refused to repay the costs of defending him, but attacked the lawmaker for questioning his fiscal stewardship.
Sen. Bryan Simonaire said he wanted to "help restore the trust" of county residents frustrated by the criminal indictment of Leopold, the conviction of a county councilman on a tax charge, and the two federal discrimination lawsuits pending against the county executive. In one of the civil cases, the county hired a $450-an-hour private attorney to defend Leopold, who has denied wrongdoing.
"To put this into perspective, two hours of your legal services are costing our county more than many residents make in a week," Simonaire wrote to Leopold Tuesday. "Residents are struggling to make their monthly bills and they do not want these exorbitant lawyer fees evidently added to their tax bills."
Simonaire, who released a copy of his letter to the media, wrote that the pledge was both "the morally right thing" and "a matter of integrity and fiscal responsibility," comments that set off a string of barbs between the politicians.
Leopold replied that the letter "reeks of hypocrisy" and that Simonaire should "start with your own record" of charging taxpayers to stay in Annapolis during the legislative session when Simonaire lives 20 minutes away.
Leopold credited himself with returning $17,000 of his salary to the county government when employees had to be forced onto furloughs.
"It appears you would prefer to act as judge and jury before I am afforded the opportunity to defend myself," Leopold wrote, according to a copy of the letter released by his office. "I sincerely hope that you will never personally have to face groundless accusations in your role as a public official."
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College, said it makes sense that, amid a potential scandal, fellow Republicans would jockey for the role of most fiscally responsible.
Leopold is "sort of top dog Republican in the county," Eberly said. "And if you're a Republican, this is a way to simply distance yourself."
Leopold had not made any public statements about his legal fees until Tuesday's letter. He wrote that state law requires the county to defend him and he expects to prevail in the lawsuit — exactly as the law was designed to work, he said.
The suit was filed by a former press aide who alleged Leopold created a hostile work environment for women and fired her for complaining.
Simonaire called Leopold's response a way to "childishly attack the messenger and avoid the pledge."
Three weeks ago, Simonaire hired Joan Harris, another former Leopold employee who sued the county executive, alleging he fired her for helping the former press aide build a case against him.
Simonaire said Harris' experience in constituent work with Leopold made her the best candidate for his new office in Pasadena and that her employment was unrelated to his call for Leopold to repay legal costs.
"I knew that when I hired her that it could be perceived as a conflict," Simonaire said, but added that they made a policy never to discuss Harris' case. "The beneficiaries of my letter, that's the taxpayers.
The civil cases are separate from criminal misconduct charges alleging Leopold misused his police security by dispatching officers on personal errands, asking them to drive him to uproot campaign signs, and having them chauffeur him to sexual rendezvous in area parking lots.
Leopold has denied wrongdoing in all cases.
In the other example noted by Simonaire, Councilman Daryl Jones was removed from office this year while serving five months in prison for failing to file a tax return.