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Detail officer says Leopold removed opponent's campaign signs

ElectionsJustice System

An Anne Arundel County police sergeant told a judge Wednesday that he drove County Executive John R. Leopold on a predawn tour of Pasadena and Glen Burnie, with Leopold directing him to spots where the county executive uprooted his opponent's campaign signs.

Sgt. Gregory Speed testified that he picked Leopold up at home around 6 a.m. — "it was still dark," he said — on the October Sunday before the 2010 general election. He said he returned Leopold home by 7 a.m., and that he thought most of the signs removed had been staked along roads.

His description of the quick tour with Leopold directing the way came in the third day of testimony in Leopold's trial on four counts of misconduct in office and one of misappropriation of funds by a fiduciary. The 69-year-old Republican has denied wrongdoing.

Leopold is accused of using his police security detail and staff for personal and political gain. At the heart of the case are accusations that he used his security officers for campaign work and to ferry him to sexual encounters with a county employee. Speed was the fourth protection detail officer to testify.

The defense has questioned whether the allegations against Leopold are crimes at all. The case is being heard in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court by retired Judge Dennis M. Sweeney.

Prosecutors could use the allegation that this was done before it was fully light out on a weekend morning to try to drive home their point that Leopold knew he was doing something wrong. The prosecution could rest as early as Thursday.

But questioned by Leopold's attorneys, Speed said it appeared that three of the challenger's signs were in the public right-of-way — that's off-limits for placing campaign signs — and he wasn't sure of the fourth. Another detail officer and Leopold's chief of staff also testified Wednesday that they had run errands for the county executive and did not believe he had broken the law.

Speed said Leopold also planted one of his own signs on a home's lawn during the tour.

Joanna Conti was the Democratic challenger that year, as Leopold successfully sought a second term as executive. Briefly on the witness stand, Conti identified one of her campaign signs that another officer had testified was pulled from a ravine where he said Leopold tossed it.

"I've never seen one quite that dirty," she said.

Cpl. Mark Walker, another former member of the detail, told the judge Wednesday that the Anne Arundel County executive directed him to stand watch outside his hospital room to keep Leopold's mistress from trying to visit as he was recovering from back surgery.

Walker said he did not consider the woman a security threat to Leopold.

He also described picking up donations for Leopold's 2010 reelection campaign, and driving around the county while on duty to plant cherry-red Leopold campaign signs.

Walker said he also drove Leopold to parking-lot sexual liaisons with his mistress, a county employee, and emptied the urinary catheter bag Leopold used after back surgeries in 2010.

Under cross-examination from Leopold's attorney, Walker said he did not believe Leopold had done anything illegal. He acknowledged making an unsolicited donation to Leopold's campaign, and said he wanted to remain on Leopold's detail even after telling a grand jury about the alleged actions.

Earlier Wednesday, a top Leopold aide said he warned the executive that he might be opening himself to political attack if he had county employees put up his campaign signs.

Erik Robey, now Leopold's chief of staff, said the executive rebuffed his suggestion that the campaign hire college students for a few thousand dollars to put up the signs during his 2010 reelection campaign.

But Robey said he didn't believe Leopold was breaking any law when he directed members of his police detail to post the signs.

Robey, who began his testimony Tuesday, described a shoestring campaign managed by Leopold himself.

He said he handled checks and took campaign signs to the county executive's home in Pasadena for distribution to volunteers. He testified that he saw his role in Leopold's campaign as helping "in any way I could."

In his opening statement last week, an attorney for Leopold, Bruce Marcus, said there are no rules, laws or regulations against the actions of which Leopold is accused.

He told Sweeney last week that the "tabloid-like" allegations might reflect Leopold's "poor judgment" and "lack of social grace," but they did not rise to the level of a crime.

If convicted of the fraud charge, Leopold could be sentenced to up to five years in prison. Judges have broad leeway on sentences for misconduct in office because the charge carries no specific penalty.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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