Investigation finds evidence of 'discrimination' and 'pervasive' harassment by Sheriff James Fitzgerald

A nearly year-long investigation by the Howard County Office of Human Rights found that Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald discriminated against Lt. Charles Gable, who endured more than five years of "abusive" treatment while working for the agency.

The 48-page decision, obtained from Gable's attorney Joseph Mallon Jr., concludes Fitzgerald intentionally "berated and belittled" Gable to the point that he had "no other choice but to leave his job" after Gable did not support Fitzgerald's second political campaign, according to Sept. 1 decision.

Current and former Sheriff's Office employees, interviewed during the investigation, described a pattern of similar treatment from Fitzgerald because of their political opinions and lack of support for the sheriff, according to the decision.

The investigation also found the sheriff, who is white, berated employees by using what some described as racially charged language and gestures against African Americans and demeaned "the integrity of the person by use of inappropriate humor based on racial stereotypes."

In several instances, the sheriff used the "n-word," made derogatory comments about women's breasts and called former county executive Ken Ulman "little Kenny Jew Boy."

The report also claims the sheriff said, "The African-American deputies are not too smart, but they get the job done."

When Fitzgerald discovered Gable complained about his behavior, the sheriff "retaliated" by taking his badge and gun, according to the investigation. The investigation outlines a series of tactics, including manipulation of job assignments and schedules, verbal abuse, bullying and intimidation.

The sheriff "systematically promoted those who actively supported his political campaigns; irrespective of their work ethic, special training, and/or experience," according to the report.

Fitzgerald did not immediately return requests for comment Wednesday and last week.

Fitzgerald, who is in his third term, disagrees with the findings of the investigation, said Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for the state's Office of the Attorney General, which represents the sheriff in his official capacity.

"No judge or jury has determined that Sheriff Fitzgerald violated any laws. The sheriff disagrees with the investigation's findings, particularly since he did not have an opportunity to participate in the investigation," Coombs said.

The investigation finds "reasonable cause" for discrimination. The matter can now be considered by the county's Human Rights Commission, a quasi-judicial body, in a court or through independent mediation.

Several current employees refused to speak with the Office of Human Rights' investigator, citing a "a very real fear that the sheriff will retaliate against them," according to the investigation.

One witness said people who work in the Sheriff's Office "have a gag order on them. It's not written but it's implied," according to the report.

In the investigation, Fitzgerald denied engaging in any discriminatory conduct. While he did reprimand Gable on work-related issues, Fitzgerald indicated it was "nothing out of the ordinary" and described himself as "a loud New Yorker," according to the report.

The office interviewed Fitzgerald during the investigation, but Coombs said the investigation was "one-sided in terms of the ability to cross-examine witnesses," among other issues.

The county declined to comment on the report. By law, the Office of Human Rights cannot disclose information related to an investigation until the issue is referred for a public hearing, said Mark Miller, a county spokesman.

Gable, who joined the office in 1998, sought help from his doctor, who diagnosed him with PTSD and directly attributed Gable's condition to the sheriff, according to the investigation.

Other concerns

The Sheriff's Office has been under the spotlight for other concerns.

John McMahon, the runner-up in Howard County's 2014 race for sheriff, is demanding the county's circuit court immediately replace Fitzgerald, citing allegations that Fitzgerald is not legally eligible for the position, according to a civil complaint filed in Howard County Circuit Court. That complaint was moved to the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court in June.

McMahon, who lost the general race by nearly 13,000 votes, argues Fitzgerald failed to take an oath of office required by the state constitution in 2014 and does not permanently live in the county, making Fitzgerald ineligible for the position, according to the complaint.

According to a February investigation by the county auditor, four employees of the sheriff's office improperly used union leave, thus granting Howard County Fitzgerald "county-subsidized campaign labor" not available to his opponents.

Four employees of the sheriff's office used 182 hours in union leave at a cost of $7,823 to provide support to the sheriff's campaign, according to the investigation.

This story will be updated.

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