Howard County officials: Embattled sheriff resigns

The Howard Co. sheriff under fire in recent weeks has resigned.

Embattled Howard County Sheriff James F. Fitzgerald, accused of using bigoted language, harassing employees and retaliating against those who didn't support his re-election, has agreed to resign after a decade in office, county officials said Tuesday.

Fitzgerald, a Democrat who faced bipartisan calls to quit, signed an agreement Tuesday to resign within 30 days, County Executive Allan Kittleman said. His last day of work will be Saturday.

"I think it's a good thing for the citizens of Howard County," said Kittleman, a Republican. "I want to commend everyone in the community for standing up when they learned about the sheriff's actions and his comments. I think it was because of our total community coming together ... that led to this day."

Neither Fitzgerald nor his representatives responded to requests for comment on Tuesday. An employee who answered the phone at the sheriff's office Tuesday said Fitzgerald was not likely to return a message.

In his lone public statement on the controversy, Fitzgerald apologized last month for the atmosphere caused by the accusations, but not for his actions. He said at the time that he would not step down.

Kittleman was one of more than two dozen current and former elected officials who had called on Fitzgerald to step down.

The pressure had been building since a report by the county's Office of Human Rights that detailed allegations of discrimination, harassment and retaliation was made public last month.

The report was the result of a yearlong investigation into a complaint brought by a lieutenant in the sheriff's office. Investigators said they found "reasonable cause" to believe that Fitzgerald, 69, had discriminated against Lt. Charles M. Gable by manipulating his assignments and work schedules.

They detailed accusations that Fitzgerald used racist and vulgar language and systematically retaliated against some employees while promoting others who supported him.

Fitzgerald told investigators that he hadn't done anything wrong. He said he was simply a "loud New Yorker."

Gov. Larry Hogan will be charged with naming a replacement to complete Fitzgerald's term, which ends in 2018.

The Howard County sheriff's office provides courthouse security, serves warrants, transports prisoners and addresses landlord-tenant disputes. It is not the county's primary law enforcement agency.

Fitzgerald, first elected in 2006, made $91,000 per year. He is not receiving any financial payment to resign, Kittleman said, but will have some sort of pension benefit.

Howard County Council Chairman Calvin Ball said he helped broker the agreement that led to Fitzgerald's resignation.

Ball said "press releases and bluster might help" force out Fitzgerald, but he decided to make a personal appeal to the sheriff that stepping down was the best course of action.

Ball said he didn't discuss the nature of the accusations with the sheriff.

"I think it was less important to hear reasons or excuses and more important to help move forward," said Ball, a Democrat.

Under the agreement, Gable is to be reinstated.

Gable, who likened Fitzgerald's management to a "reign of terror," resigned this year during the investigation. He will now receive $58,350 in back pay.

"[Gable] is pleased to have the matter resolved and is looking forward to returning to the sheriff's office," said his attorney, Joseph T. Mallon Jr. of Baltimore. "He's certainly pleased the community of Howard County has no tolerance for intolerance. He's glad that he stood up to the sheriff."

Kittleman called Gable "the real hero" and lauded him for lodging the complaint about Fitzgerald.

"I think maybe people were upset, but kept quiet," Kittleman said.

The Office of Human Rights report was the first time that many in Howard County learned of Fitzgerald's alleged behavior.

The 48-page report included scores of allegations against the sheriff. He was accused of using a slur for African-Americans and calling former County Executive Ken Ulman "little Kenny Jew-boy."

The report alleged the sheriff told one employee: "African-American deputies are not too smart, but they get the job done."

It's not immediately clear who will run the sheriff's office after Oct. 15. Fitzgerald's second-in-command, Maj. George Voll, retired this month, according to Kittleman.

Kittleman said he hopes Hogan will work quickly to name a replacement. Hogan is not bound to pick another Democrat to replace him.

The allegations against Fitzgerald infuriated many in Howard County, where motorists decorate their cars with "Choose Civility" bumper stickers and the largest community, Columbia, was founded on ideals of equality.

Just days before the report became public, Money magazine named Columbia — "a planned community that prizes economic and social diversity" — the best place to live in America.

Demonstrators have protested against Fitzgerald outside the sheriff's office in Columbia and the county courthouse in Ellicott City. A group of African-American leaders had planned a news conference for Thursday to press for his resignation.

Hogan on Tuesday became the latest official to call on Fitzgerald to step down. He said he was "very disturbed" by the comments noted in the investigation.

Some elected officials had begun researching whether he could be impeached.

Before winning his first election as sheriff in 2006, Fitzgerald was a Howard County police officer.

The Office of Human Rights investigation was the latest bout of trouble for Fitzgerald. The county auditor found this year that sheriff's office employees used union leave improperly to assist in his re-election campaign.

The auditor said the 182 hours of leave were worth $7,823 and amounted to "county-subsidized campaign labor" for the sheriff.

Fitzgerald also is the subject of a lawsuit from John McMahon, who lost to the sheriff in the last election. McMahon alleges that Fitzgerald did not take the oath of office and does not maintain a permanent residence in Howard County. The lawsuit is pending in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
45°