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Leopold not guilty on one misconduct count

A circuit judge found John R. Leopold not guilty Friday of one count of misconduct in office, a partial victory for the embattled Anne Arundel County executive as his trial continued on other charges.

Judge Dennis M. Sweeney said Leopold showed "a lack of sound judgment" when he used his taxpayer-funded police protection detail to drive around the county as he took down a challenger's campaign signs, and said he might have been charged with theft or malicious destruction of property.

But Sweeney agreed with Leopold's attorneys that he had been acting as a private citizen, and not as county executive, so the alleged actions did not amount to misconduct in office.

The ruling left Leopold, 69, fighting three counts of misconduct and one of fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary.

The two-term county executive, a Republican, is accused of using police to put up his campaign signs, to gather information on Democratic challenger Joanna Conti, to empty his urinary catheter bag, to take him to sexual liaisons with a county employee and to keep that woman from meeting his live-in girlfriend.

After Sweeney's ruling, Leopold's attorneys opened his defense with testimony from his orthopedic surgeon.

They have described their client as a veteran politician with a long history of winning office on shoestring campaigns he has managed himself, and say he sought assistance from his police detail only after he began to suffer crippling back pain.

Dr. Roy E. Bands Jr. used a large magnetic resonance image to show where one of Leopold's spinal discs had deteriorated, leaving two bones to rub against each other — a condition the doctor said was "extremely uncomfortable."

"I was a bit taken aback when I saw these studies," said Bands, who practices in Annapolis. "Typically, patients will not last this long. … They will seek out treatment and usually have this thing fixed, if you will, before it gets this bad."

Bands was the only witness of the day. Sweeney adjourned court early, in advance of Friday's light snowfall.

Earlier Friday, Leopold attorney Robert Bonsib asked Sweeney to acquit the two-term county executive of all charges.

Bonsib said there were no rules to tell Leopold he wasn't allowed to use county police officers in the ways alleged by prosecutors. If officials had wanted to prohibit the executive from using the officers for certain activities, he said, they should have put it in writing.

"You can't just jump up one day and say it smells, it's boorish, it's poor judgment — and therefore it's criminal," he said.

But Sweeney, who is hearing the case without a jury, said there was "sufficient basis" for trying Leopold on the four remaining counts.

Leopold's attorneys are scheduled to continue his defense when the trial resumes Monday.

Prosecutors rested their case Thursday after calling a parade of police officers to the witness stand.

Officers testified that they spent several hours each working day during the 2010 campaign putting up cherry-red Leopold signs. One said he gathered information on Conti.

Officers also said they drove Leopold to weekly liaisons with a county employee at a bowling alley parking lot, and kept watch to make sure that no one happened upon the encounters. When Leopold was at Anne Arundel Medical Center for back surgery, officers testified, he directed them to ensure that the woman didn't show up at the hospital.

Bonsib said Friday that Leopold didn't require anyone to perform the tasks.

Prosecutor Thomas M. McDonough said the requirement was implied because Leopold was the boss. Officers and Leopold's former scheduler testified that they feared for their jobs if they didn't do what he wanted.

Bonsib said no one was fired or transferred by Leopold during the period in question. Two members of Leopold's police detail testified that they voluntarily gave unsolicited donations to his campaign, and one said he hoped to stay on Leopold's detail even after telling a grand jury about the activities at issue.

But at least two other police officers opted to leave the detail, with one saying it was "getting quirky" and was not as it had been under former County Executive Janet S. Owens.

If convicted of the fraud charge, Leopold could be sentenced to five years in prison. Judges have broad leeway in sentencing for misconduct because the charge carries no specific sanction.

Leopold, who opted for a bench trial, has remained in office while under indictment.

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