11:12 AM EST, January 30, 2013
Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold treated the county government as his personal fiefdom, and he acted as if those paid by the public were his servants. He ordered them to engage in activity to further his political career, to facilitate his liaisons and to take on the demeaning task of changing his urinary catheter bag. That makes him a terrible boss and a bad public servant. Judge Dennis Sweeney ruled Tuesday that it also makes him a criminal. His decision in this case sets an important and wise precedent in the state's vague public corruption law and offers the promise that Anne Arundel County can put this tawdry episode behind it.
State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt brought an indictment against Mr. Leopold that accused him of ordering his executive protection detail to put up campaign signs for him, to compile dossiers on potential political opponents, to chauffeur him around the county as he ripped out his opponent's campaign signs, to drive him to midday assignations in a parking lot with another county employee, and to prevent that woman from crossing paths with his live-in girlfriend. The prosecutor also alleged that Mr. Leopold ordered the officers and his scheduler to empty the urinary catheter bag he wore after undergoing back surgery. The nature of the charges made Mr. Leopold a laughingstock, but it also provided him with a ready defense: that even if these allegations were true, they amounted to bad behavior, not a crime.
During his two-week trial, Mr. Leopold did not dispute the facts of the case that Mr. Davitt brought, so the only question for Judge Sweeney was the legal one. In finding Mr. Leopold guilty on some counts but not others, Judge Sweeney drew a reasonable line. Requiring officers to drive him around as he ripped out signs or to his parking lot encounters, while unseemly, was not illegal. Had Mr. Leopold been charged with the offense of destroying an opponent's campaign signs, that might have been a different story, but part of the officers' jobs is to serve as drivers. Ordering the officers to put up Leopold signs and to compile dossiers on opponents, though, was a misuse of his authority as county executive. In effect, he took civil service jobs and made them political in nature. That is a line no elected official should cross. Ordering his employees to change the catheter bag was simply humiliating. It is, Judge Sweeney noted, something that would not be acceptable in either the public or private sector.
It is not clear yet whether Mr. Leopold intends to appeal Judge Sweeney's decision, and we do not yet know what kind of sentence Mr. Leopold will be given. But already the outcome of this case reflects an improvement on other recent public corruption trials. A constitutional amendment passed by voters in November calls for the immediate suspension of an elected official when found guilty of a felony or, as in Mr. Leopold's case, a misdemeanor related to their public duties. Mr. Leopold might have sought to stay in office on the argument that the amendment passed after he was indicted, but to his credit, he did not. He has authorized the county administrative officer to step in for him on an acting basis.
The next question is whether the County Council should step in to formally declare Mr. Leopold's post vacant. It should. It is possible that Mr. Leopold will appeal and that higher courts will disagree with Judge Sweeney, but the section of the county charter dealing with the removal of an executive who is convicted of a crime does not require the council to wait until the appeals are exhausted. The section, which was substantially revised by county voters in November — doubtless with this very situation in mind — allows immediate removal with a vote of five of the seven council members if the executive "is found guilty of, or pleads nolo contendere to, and is convicted of, a felony or a crime involving moral turpitude or misfeasance or malfeasance in office." Taking that step would allow for some predictability in the county's leadership for the remaining two years of Mr. Leopold's term. Also, not insignificantly, the charter allows the council to strip an executive who has been removed from office of his pension benefits earned in that job. Under the circumstances, we suspect the voters of Anne Arundel County would approve.
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