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Howard County officials move to oust embattled sheriff

Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald apologized Thursday for the drama surrounding accusations of discrimination and harassment in his office, but said he intends to continue to stay in office.

Leaders in Howard County are taking steps to remove embattled Sheriff James Fitzgerald from office after he said Thursday that he won't resign over allegations he used foul and racist language to belittle and threaten employees.

Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman asked the county's representatives in Annapolis to investigate whether the General Assembly can impeach Fitzgerald.

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"I recognize that impeachment of any elected official is an extreme step, one that should not be taken in haste," Kittleman wrote to lawmakers. "But the offensive actions and behavior documented in [a county human rights investigation] are so grossly contrary to the shared values of inclusion and respect for all that we hold dear in Howard County that I see no other recourse."

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, who chairs the county's House delegation, said she and state Sen. Guy Guzzone, who chairs the Senate delegation, have asked the General Assembly's lawyers whether they can impeach the sheriff and how the process would work.

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Fitzgerald, a Democrat, has been accused of creating a hostile work environment for those who did not support his re-election campaign.

The allegations were detailed in a report by the county's Office of Human Rights, which investigated a complaint filed last year by a lieutenant in the sheriff's office.

The Office of Human Rights found "reasonable cause" that the sheriff discriminated against Lt. Charles Gable. Gable resigned in February.

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, a Democrat, said Thursday that if Fitzgerald didn't resign he would ask Kittleman and Gov. Larry Hogan "to explore alternative means of fulfilling the functions" of the office.

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Kittleman and Ball are among more than 20 current and former elected officials from both parties who have called for Fitzgerald to resign since the report was published last week.

At a news conference Thursday, Fitzgerald said he would not resign.

The third-term sheriff apologized for the drama surrounding the accusations but said he intends to stay in office.

"The report was humbling, hurtful and disappointing for all involved," he said. He said the findings had inspired him to catalog his accomplishments in office, including hiring African-Americans as deputies.

Atterbeary, a Democrat, said the Maryland Constitution has provisions for impeaching holders of offices, including county sheriffs.

Atterbeary and Guzzone plan to meet with the rest of the Howard County delegation to decide whether to proceed with impeachment.

"We live in a community that's founded on diversity and inclusion," she said. "To have a leader in that community who is supposed to protect people, who deals with issues of domestic violence, who has to effectuate eviction notices ... and to say the type of things he said about women, folks of different religious backgrounds, different ethnicities — people don't trust him."

Guzzone, also a Democrat, said he had hoped Fitzgerald would resign so that discussion of impeachment wouldn't be necessary.

"When you have the right to arrest people, detain people, interact with people with authority, there is a high expectation that all citizens be dealt with dignity and respect," he said. "That's a matter of public trust. If the public loses faith in that, I think we have a real problem."

The General Assembly considered impeaching a sheriff in 1973. Frederick County Sheriff Richard O. Baumgartner had been indicted on 32 counts including embezzlement and malfeasance in office.

The Maryland Constitution lays out the impeachment process only for the governor, lieutenant governor and judges. But the attorney general at the time, Francis B. Burch, wrote that sheriffs also could be impeached.

Elected officials may be removed from office if they are convicted of a felony, or of a misdemeanor related to their conduct in office that carries the possibility of jail time. Fitzgerald has not been charged with any crime.

Fitzgerald summoned reporters to his Columbia office Thursday to make his statement.

He spoke broadly about police-community relations and the national conversation about policing, and said he wants to use his experience to "show that law enforcement is a part of the solution."

"I'm shifting this challenge that faces our office and my leadership as a way to make things better by moving forward so the community can see my heart," Fitzgerald said.

He did not address the findings of the human rights investigation. He did not speak of changes in his office or changes in leadership. He said he remained committed to serving the people of Howard County.

He did not answer questions from reporters.

The Office of Human Rights, which interviewed members of the sheriff's department, reported accusations that Fitzgerald used a slur for African-Americans and called former County Executive Ken Ulman "little Kenny Jew-boy."

"He was described as vindictive, arrogant, rude, belligerent, nasty and intimidating," investigators wrote in the report.

Ulman said Thursday he was disappointed that Fitzgerald didn't resign. He said he supported the effort to impeach him.

"The fact that we have people in positions of authority who think and behave this way in 2016 shows that we still have more work to do as a society," Ulman said in a statement.

A handful of protesters showed up at Fitzgerald's office Thursday, standing in the rain and carrying signs that read "Black Lives Matter" and "Stop Discrimination."

"This man has said some deplorable things, and he would be in that basket," Lindsay Lukas said — an allusion to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's description of some of Republican Donald Trump's supporters as a "basket of deplorables."

Paige Getty, senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, said she was disappointed that Fitzgerald wouldn't resign.

"There is no place in the sheriff's office for discrimination and racism," she said.

Janelle Bruce, youth pastor of St. John Baptist Church in Columbia, said the public should have been allowed into the news conference, and the sheriff should have answered questions.

"It's not OK," she said. "It's not the way a public official behaves, and he's a public official."

John McMahon, who lost to Fitzgerald in the last election, tried to attend the news conference but was turned away by a deputy. He has filed a lawsuit alleging that Fitzgerald did not take the oath of office and does not maintain a permanent residence in Howard County.

McMahon said the allegations in the Office of Human Rights report seem "very plausible."

"The report speaks for itself," McMahon said.

Fitzgerald was re-elected in 2014 to a third term as sheriff. In Howard County, the sheriff's office serves warrants, provides courthouse security, transports prisoners and deals with landlord-tenant disputes. It is not the county's primary law enforcement agency.

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The allegations of racism and calls for impeachment are only the most recent troubles for Fitzgerald.

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The county auditor found this year that sheriff's office employees used union leave improperly to assist Fitzgerald's 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.

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