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Report against Howard County sheriff unveils 'common knowledge' of a 'living hell' unchecked for years, sources say

Howard County politicians' calls for the resignation of three-time Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald came swiftly Thursday following the release of a scathing report that documents more than five years of alleged bullying and discrimination by Fitzgerald. But sources close to the sheriff said the findings of the report have been "common knowledge" for years, revealing the independence of an elected official who sources said has gone unchecked for years.

Howard County politicians calling for the resignation of three-time Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald came swiftly Thursday following the release of a scathing report that documents more than five years of alleged bullying and discrimination by Fitzgerald.

But sources close to the sheriff said the findings of the report, from the Howard County Office of Human Rights, have been "common knowledge" for years, revealing the independence of an elected official who sources said has gone unchecked for years.

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Fitzgerald is in his third term and heads a quasi-judicial body that aims to independently protect the judiciary.

"This should have been breaking years eight years ago," said John McMahon, a runner-up in the 2014 race for sheriff.

The report, released amid what county officials said was a sensitive time for law enforcement across the county, documents racially charged language against African Americans, women and others and concludes the sheriff berated former Lt. Charles Gable to the point he had no choice but to leave his job.

Sources close to the sheriff's office like former employee Robert Collins said a climate of fear is so pervasive in the Sheriff's Office that people rarely came forward.

Former Lt. Carroll Roles, who worked in the Sheriff's Office for nearly 20 years and was interviewed in the county's investigation, told the Howard County Times the sheriff's demeaning behavior, often based on whether the individual supported his campaign, was "common knowledge."

"It was like a living hell. He'd call people cancers," Roles said.

Sheriff James F. Fitzgerald of the Howard County Sheriff's Office is in the hot seat after a county investigation found evidence he discriminated against a former staff member.
Sheriff James F. Fitzgerald of the Howard County Sheriff's Office is in the hot seat after a county investigation found evidence he discriminated against a former staff member. (2009 File Photo)

He was told to consult the attorney general's office to express his concerns after he contacted the administration of former county executive Ken Ulman. He never did.

Gable brought allegations of discrimination by Fitzgerald to the county's Office of Human Rights over a year ago, resulting in the investigation.

Roles applauds Gable for his courage.

"I know the politics of coming forward when you have a Democratic county sheriff and a Democrat attorney general. You are really fighting an uphill battle. Coming forward has an impact on you and your family life," Roles said.

Fitzgerald endorsed Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, for his 2014 campaign.

The sheriff, who has not returned repeated requests for comment since last week, denied the allegations in the report. Mark Verderaime, president of the union that represents the sheriff's office, said the matter is now "in our attorney's hands."

Witnesses in the county's investigation said Fitzgerald often said "I can do anything I want in Howard County; they aren't going to do a damned [thing] to me."

Robert Collins, who retired from the Sheriff's Office in 2014 and was interviewed by an investigator with the Office of Human Rights, said the report provides clear evidence of "political retribution."

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"Everybody is scared to death of him. If you disagreed with him, you were in trouble," said Collins. "He would've been a great dictator."

Collins, a former president of the sheriff's union, said Fitzgerald referred him to a psychologist after he challenged why the sheriff's close deputies were numbering voting ballots in 2010.

"My contention was they were making sure they were labelling them to see who people endorsed," said Collins. "It was political retribution time and time again."

Local community organizations like the county's NAACP chapter wondered why the allegations, which document claims from witnesses about years of harassment, are now becoming public.

The president of Howard County's NAACP chapter, David Steele, said he was "deeply disturbed" it has taken this long for the public to know about the allegations. The report is so far-reaching the NAACP is ready to call on Gov. Larry Hogan to initiate a department-wide investigation to determine if "a culture of institutional bias" exists, Steele said.

But for some local activists, the report was "not a surprise."

"This is a man we had endorsed … but recently we had heard of disturbing comments," said Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, an organization that aims to improve the lives of the African American community. "We knew there was a problem. He has made comments about fried chicken and other racial stereotypes to us."

Howell said the coalition invited Fitzgerald to a community conversation about race with the hopes of encouraging interaction with Howard's African American community.

"You cannot play any games with this. In this nationally racially charged environment, we cannot have a law enforcement official act in this manner," Howell said.

Vernon Gray, a local African American activist, former Howard County Councilman and the former administrator of the county's Office of Human Rights, said he heard passing mention of the issues revealed in the report during the sheriff's re-election but he dismissed them.

"If you have an abundance of rumor from different people, then that's something. In this case, we didn't have that," said Gray. "This is egregious and intolerable and something we cannot have in our midst."

The report is the latest of a series of mounting concerns about Fitzgerald's office.

A suit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court alleges the sheriff failed to take the oath of office, disbarring him from office.

Earlier this year, the county docked nearly $7,000 from the sheriff's budget following an audit that showed his staff used tax dollars for Fitzgerald's re-election campaign in 2014.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, three former county executives, the Howard County state delegation, the Howard County Council, the county's Register of Wills, Byron MacFarlane, and both party's central committee have released statements calling on the sheriff to resign.

'The writing is on the wall'

After 46 years in law enforcement, Roles knows a career in law enforcement requires "thick skin."

But the sheriff's treatment of staff was so demeaning he was forced leave.

"I was embarrassed to be in his company," Roles said. "In all my years, I was never talked to by anybody that way. This was tongue-lashing in front of everyone."

In the spring of 2013, he remembers what he called an especially jarring tirade.

Roles said the sheriff told him to reserve a dozen consecutive parking spaces for a meeting. To make space for public parking, Roles reserved spots in other areas.

The change sparked a berating "tirade" from the sheriff, Roles said.

"His face was beet-red and it looked like he was about to have a heart attack," Roles said.

The account, corroborated in the county's investigation, was so jarring staff said they thought he would resign that day, he said.

"I elected to take the high road," Roles said.

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Roles left the office in mid-January 2014. He hopes the investigation, which remains internal, will restore trust in the law enforcement community of Howard County, a force he said is strong.

"We're in the 21st century. He acts like he is in the early '60s," Roles said. "This does not help our law enforcement community. I've prided myself in treating others with respect for almost 50 years in this career. The actions of this man are unacceptable.

"It's not too late. The writing is on the wall."

A community rally outside the Howard County Circuit Court in Ellicott City at 8 p.m. will call on the sheriff to resign if he does not to so by 5 p.m. today.

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