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Howard County leaders call on sheriff to resign following discrimination investigation

Howard County Exec Kittleman wants sheriff accused of discrimination to resign.

Howard County's current county executive and three former executives are calling on Sheriff James F. Fitzgerald to resign following the release of a scathing report alleging discrimination and harassment of his employees.

"I hope that you will move quickly to ensure that we maintain the public's trust in all law enforcement personnel and resign from your position as Sheriff for Howard County," Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman wrote in a letter to Fitzgerald on Thursday.

The call comes after Howard County's Office of Human Rights investigated wide-ranging complaints about Fitzgerald made by a former lieutenant in the sheriff's department. Investigators found "reasonable cause" that Fitzgerald discriminated against the lieutenant for not supporting the sheriff's political campaign and was "subjected to a severe and pervasive workplace environment."

Fitzgerald is alleged to have used foul language, including the "n-word." The report also alleges the sheriff told one employee: "African-American deputies are not too smart, but they get the job done."

Fitzgerald, a Democrat serving his third term as elected sheriff, did not respond to messages left at his office and his home.

A spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office, which represents the sheriff in his official capacity, said Fitzgerald disagrees with the findings of the investigation.

According to the report, Fitzgerald told investigators he's a "loud New Yorker," but he denied discriminatory conduct. He touted his efforts to modernize the office and increase diversity among the sheriff's deputies.

Employees interviewed during the investigation described a pattern of negative treatment by Fitzgerald which they attributed to their political opinions and lack of support for his campaign.

Lt. Charles Gable, who filed the complaint in September 2015, told investigators Fitzgerald "berated and belittled" him and left him with "no other choice but to leave his job."

Gable was hired as a deputy sheriff in 1998 and resigned in February. His attorney did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Kittleman, a Republican, said in his letter that the allegations "serve as a distraction to the day-to-day operations of the Sheriff's office and have the capability of causing serious public mistrust of our sworn public safety officers."

He said it's important for residents to have confidence in their sheriff's department, especially at a time of "widespread distrust of law enforcement" nationally.

Kittleman was joined by three of his predecessors in calling on Fitzgerald to resign: Ken Ulman, who was county executive from 2006 to 2014; James N. Robey, who served from 1998 to 2006; and Edward L. Cochran, who served from 1974 to 1978.

The executives issued a joint statement saying Fitzgerald's statements "run counter" to Howard County's "shared values of inclusion and respect for neighbors of all backgrounds and beliefs."

Kittleman said while he and others urge Fitzgerald to resign, officials have no recourse regarding the sheriff, who is elected and runs his own office. In Howard County, the sheriff's office is not the primary law enforcement agency, but handles courthouse security, warrants, prisoner transport and landlord-tenant issues.

"He's a state constitutional officer, so we have no authority over his office," Kittleman said. "We have now done everything we can do. We will have to wait and see what happens. I'm hopeful the sheriff will consider our request and I think it would be better for the department to move forward if he steps down."

Under the Maryland Constitution, elected officials can only be automatically removed from office if they are convicted of either a felony, or a misdemeanor relating to their official duties that carries a possible jail sentence.

Kittleman, who was elected in 2014, said he was not aware of the allegations against Fitzgerald until he read the human rights report.

Among the findings in the 48-page report is an allegation Fitzgerald once referred to former executive Ulman as "little Kenny Jew-boy."

"Frankly, the calling of names was incredibly disappointing, but the pervasive behavior outlined in the report was also incredibly disappointing," said Ulman, a Democrat who now works as chief strategy officer for the University of Maryland, College Park.

Ulman said he'd seen Fitzgerald's temper at times and described the sheriff as boisterous and passionate — but had not heard of alleged bullying or berating.

"We had meetings were he was upset and would yell and scream a bit when he was unhappy he didn't get something in the budget," Ulman said. "That sort of behavior was not surprising. The systematic bullying and punishing people regarding political activities is completely surprising."

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, a Democrat who is African-American, agreed that Fitzgerald should consider resigning.

"I do not believe that any leader — particularly a law enforcement leader — can effectively serve, should these allegations be true," Ball said. "I think he should definitely consider resigning."

Ball, who represents eastern Columbia and parts of Jessup and Ellicott City, said the revelations were disturbing, especially given Howard County's reputation for striving for diversity.

"I think we should be a model of diversity — not just tolerating diversity but celebrating diversity," Ball said.

The Howard County Council, the register of wills, most of the county's delegates and state senators, the Howard County Democratic Central Committee and Howard County Republican Central Committee also called on Fitzgerald to resign.

The county's largest community, Columbia, was founded by developer James Rouse on the ideals of equality, and was named this week by Money magazine as the best place to live in America. The magazine cited Columbia as "a planned community that prizes economic and social diversity."

Howard County also is known for ubiquitous green bumper stickers with the motto "Choose Civility" — a campaign led by the library system to "enhance respect, empathy, consideration and tolerance" in the county.

Kittleman, whose late father, Robert Kittleman, was a state senator, delegate and one-time president of the county chapter of the NAACP, said Fitzgerald's conduct is not in keeping with the spirit of Howard County.

"We have long been heralded as a county that is diverse and welcoming to people of all ethnic groups, religious groups, racial groups," Kittleman said. "This certainly goes against everything I was raised to believe being the son of a civil rights leader in Howard County. It is deeply troubling and deeply disturbing."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Fatimah Waseem contributed to this story.

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