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The $1.05 Million Question

The courts made the only fair and sensible decision last week when they ruled that responsibility for a rape committed by an on-duty Anne Arundel County policeman lies with him, not his employer.

Five years ago, Michael Dennis Ziegler stopped a woman for traffic violations, but instead of writing her a ticket he drove her to a Pasadena church parking lot and raped her. He never served a day in jail -- never even went to trial -- thanks to an appallingly generous plea agreement that let him resign from the force in lieu of facing criminal charges. The victim sued him, though, and won; the courts ordered Mr. Ziegler to pay her $1.05 million. As is usually the case in such lawsuits, the county was also named as a defendant. The victim claimed the government was liable because it condoned sexual misconduct by Mr. Ziegler and others over a 16-year period prior to the attack, that its policies were so lenient they actually encouraged rape.

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As U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II found, this was just not true. Yes, the county did wind up with egg on its face when the public learned that in 1979 then-Officer Ziegler was suspended 30 days without pay and transferred to a desk job -- but not kicked off the force -- after being accused of attacking another woman. In retrospect, that punishment may not have been severe enough. But it's one thing to say the county erred in how it disciplined Mr. Ziegler and another to say it knowingly encouraged rape. In fact, the courts found that the county investigated every complaint of sexual misconduct between 1979 and 1990 and imposed punishments, up to and including firings.

The victim and Mr. Ziegler have a mutual interest in attaching blame for his misdeeds to the county. She is more certain of getting the money from the county; he does not want to be financially wiped out. Mr. Ziegler's request that the county pay the $1.05 million soon will be heard by the Board of Appeals. The board should not find it difficult to dispense with his lame argument that even though he committed the rape, he isn't responsible because he was working for the county at the time. Neither the government nor any other employer should be accountable for employee wrongdoing unless it contributes to it. No one but Mr. Ziegler should pay for his heinous act -- least of all the taxpayers whose trust he violated.



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