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Appeals court clears Leopold to run for office again

A Maryland appeals court upheld former Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold's convictions of misconduct Wednesday but struck down a part of his sentence that prevents him from running for office while on probation.

Leopold was found guilty in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court of two counts of misconduct in January 2013, relating to ordering officers on his police detail and county employees to carry out personal and campaign tasks.

Leopold's lawyers argued on appeal that he couldn't have known that his actions would be illegal because they aren't specifically prohibited in the law. They also challenged a provision of Leopold's sentence that barred him from running for public office while he serves probation.

Leopold, a Republican from Pasadena, has served 30 days in county jail, performed 400 hours of community service at a local food bank and paid a $75,000 fine. He also was sentenced by Judge Dennis M. Sweeney to five years of probation.

In an opinion issued Wednesday, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals said that while judges have broad discretionary power to impose sentences, that power is not unlimited. The opinion noted that it's up to the Maryland Board of Elections to determine who is eligible to run for public office.

"Leopold has not been convicted of a felony or of buying or selling votes, nor is he under guardianship for mental disability, thus qualifying him to be a registered voter" and therefore eligible to run for office, Judge Alexander Wright Jr. wrote in the court's opinion.

Reached Wednesday afternoon, Leopold declined to comment because he had not read the opinion or reviewed it with his lawyers. Subsequent calls to Leopold were not immediately returned.

"We were very gratified the court took seriously our argument on the sentencing issue," said Bruce Marcus, Leopold's attorney. "Mr. Leopold has made clear his desire to continue public service, so that was extremely important to him."

Leopold, who served several terms in the House of Delegates before winning election as county executive in 2006 and again in 2010, has said he's interested in running for office again some day.

Leopold resigned as county executive on Feb. 1, 2013, three days after he was convicted.

The deadline to run for office in 2014 has passed already. Technically, Leopold could apply to fill a vacancy if any Republican withdraws after June's primaries, said Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. Decisions on filling vacancies are made by party central committees.

Cluster said it's too soon to tell whether Leopold can resurrect his political career.

"If I know one thing about John Leopold, he's one of the best campaigners in the Republican Party," Cluster said. "It's up to the voters to determine whether he has a political future or not."

Unless Leopold finds a way onto the ballot this year — some have suggested he run as an independent — he'd have to wait four more years to run for a county or state office.

That's a long time to wait for someone who is now 71, said Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.

It's tough to tell whether Pasadena voters would embrace Leopold again if he runs runs for state delegate representing the area, Nataf said. After all, he last ran there in 2002.

"It's hard to say whether there's a reservoir of good will, despite all," Nataf said. "He seems to think so."

Leopold's past campaigns relied heavily on knocking on doors and waving bright red signs that simply read "Leopold" along roadsides. He largely self-financed his campaigns and eschewed fundraisers and get-out-the-vote rallies.

"I don't know if he can do the shoe-leather thing anymore," Nataf said.

The appeals judges upheld Leopold's underlying convictions.

They agreed with the Circuit Court that Leopold was guilty because he took advantage of "free public employee help for his campaign" and ordered in a "predatory and cruel" manner for employees to empty his catheter bag.

The appeals judges also found that "Leopold's conduct was predatory, cruel, prompted by ill motive, and would constitute oppressive and wilful abuse of authority."

The appeals court wrote that a person of ordinary intelligence would know that the actions Leopold took would be against the law.

State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said he was pleased Leopold's convictions were upheld. He said it's unlikely that he would appeal the portion of the opinion that allows Leopold to run for office again.

"We felt that it was the right thing to bring the misconduct counts. We think it was important to send a message that that kind of behavior would not be tolerated," Davitt said. "The trial court agreed with us, and we're pleased the appellate court affirmed the decision."

Marcus said after evaluating the opinion more closely, he and Leopold will decide whether to appeal the convictions further.

Leopold's behavior while county executive spawned three civil court cases in addition to his criminal case.

He was sued in federal court by two former employees who said they were fired unlawfully, though the courts dropped him as a defendant and allowed the cases to proceed against the county government. One case was settled last fall for $110,000 plus attorney fees, while the other is pending in federal court in Baltimore.

Last month, an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and 11 people who objected to "dossiers" they believed Leopold and the police kept about them. The plaintiffs had sued Leopold, a former police chief and the county government in December 2012, seeking copies of the files and unspecified monetary damages.

pwood@baltsun.com

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