By Matthew Hay Brown and Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun
6:39 PM AKST, January 30, 2013
Despite a warning from the county attorney that the move was premature, the Anne Arundel County Council pressed ahead Wednesday with a plan to remove County Executive John R. Leopold from office for criminal misconduct.
Some voters, meanwhile, said it was time for the two-term executive to go, after he was found guilty of using county employees to perform political and personal errands.
"He looks like a jackass," said Michelle Cook, dining with friends at Chick and Ruth's Delly in downtown Annapolis. "He abused his privileges."
Chick and Ruth's owner Teddy Levitt said he was considering taking the "John R. Leopold" — a bowl of chicken soup — off the menu in February, as is the deli's practice in retiring the names of elected officials who leave office for any reason.
"It's a shame," Levitt said. "He's a nice guy, he's a friendly guy. He's done a lot of nice things for the county."
Leopold, 69, was found guilty of two counts of misconduct for directing members of his police protection detail during his 2010 re-election campaign to dot the county with Leopold signs, collect campaign contributions and compile dossiers on political adversaries.
He was also found to have broken the law by having police officers and his scheduler empty the urinary catheter bag he used after back surgery that year.
Under Maryland law, Leopold was suspended from office while he awaits sentencing. Circuit Court Judge Dennis M. Sweeney has not yet set a date.
The County Council, meanwhile, met in emergency session Wednesday to introduce a bill to oust the Republican.
The bipartisan measure was co-sponsored by six of the seven council members, suggesting that it has enough support to pass. A public hearing and vote are scheduled for Monday. But the county may continue to face legal uncertainty over his status, amid debate over when his conviction becomes official.
County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson said a vote before Leopold is sentenced would be premature.
Under the Maryland Constitution, Hodgson said, the council may remove the executive only after he is convicted of a crime. He said Leopold's conviction will not be entered into the court record until he is sentenced or exhausts his appeals.
If Leopold is granted probation before judgment, the conviction may never become final.
Former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's corruption case — also before Sweeney — ended two years ago with her receiving probation before judgment in a plea deal that required her to step down. That deal meant she had no conviction when she left the courtroom, and allowed her to maintain her public pension if she completes the terms of her probation.
Hodgson said he had warned council members against proceeding with the measure to remove Leopold. With Leopold suspended, Chief Administrative Officer John R. Hammond serves as acting county executive. If Leopold is removed, the council will pick his successor.
"What we don't want to do is to have a process that results in a flawed appointment," Hodgson said. "There's no need to risk that."
Anne Arundel County Councilman Jamie Benoit suggested that Hodgson might have a conflict of interest in the matter because he was appointed by Leopold.
Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat, has been the most vocal council critic of Leopold. He asked the council to request a written opinion from Hodgson on whether he could give the council objective advice.
After the meeting, Hodgson said he could. "Our common interest here is to ensure that the County Council act proper and within the scope of their powers," he said.
Council Vice Chairman John Grasso echoed that concern. If the council gets it wrong, the Glen Burnie Republican said, "we will be the laughingstock of the state."
"There is a chance the judge will give him probation before judgment," he said, "and then he's not convicted and he's back in office."
Benoit believes Leopold can be removed from office now. "From my perspective," he said, "it's over."
Around Anne Arundel County, voters had mixed reactions to the verdict. At the Double-T Diner in Pasadena, a Leopold hangout, Russell Jurmu said the Republican executive had been targeted by political opponents.
"Personally, I think there's a group of people from the beginning of his campaign eight years ago who have tried to get him out of office," the retired materials manager said. "They're not looking at the good he's done in office. They're just trying to get even."
Jurmu said he voted for Leopold in 2006 and again in 2010. "If he did these things, then shame on him," he said. But Jurmu doesn't think Leopold should be removed from office.
Jurmu's wife said she felt sorry for Leopold. "It's sad," said Audrey Jurmu, a retired schoolteacher. "He should have known better. But he wasn't doing anything different from a lot of people in government."
But Bob Burnopp said Leopold should have held himself to a higher standard. "None of us is perfect," the retired account executive said. "But elected officials are in the public trust. They should set an example."
Under the county charter, at least five council members must vote to remove the county executive. The measure, scheduled for a vote Monday, was co-sponsored by Republicans Derek Fink, Richard Ladd and Jerry Walker and Democrats Benoit, Peter Smith and Chris Trumbauer — an indication, though not a guarantee, that it has sufficient support for passage.
Walker, the council chairman, said he didn't know how the vote would go. "I can't speak for my colleagues," he said. "I don't know where the votes are. I can tell you I'll be supporting it."
Grasso, Leopold's most outspoken supporter on the council, was the only member not to sign on.
If there is a concern that Leopold's conviction is not yet official, Grasso and Fink both said, it could be rewritten to take effect only when the conviction becomes official. But by that point, he would be automatically removed under state law.
After removing the executive, it would then be up to the council to select a successor of the same party — in the case of Leopold, another Republican.
The GOP holds a 4-3 majority on the council.
County spokesman David Abrams said Tuesday that Leopold had been suspended under the Maryland Constitution, which was amended by state voters last year to require the suspension of elected officials upon conviction of a crime.
Leopold attorney Bruce Marcus said Tuesday that he was preparing for sentencing and "evaluating what the reach of the state law is."
Fink said he did not believe the council was acting in haste.
"There's been a dark shadow on this county for quite some time," he said. "We needed to show some leadership."