ANNAPOLIS, Md. >> The way prosecutors describe him, the head of Maryland’s fourth-largest county is a bully who abused his office and used his police bodyguards and secretary as his personal servants.
They say John Leopold, a former state senator, representative and Board of Education member in Hawaii, had officers put up campaign signs and drive him to repeated sexual romps in a bowling alley parking lot. He required officers to prepare dossiers on political challengers and drive him to sabotage a rival’s campaign signs. Prosecutors say Leopold also had them work overtime when he was hospitalized for back surgery, assigning an extra officer to ensure his live-in girlfriend and another woman he was involved with didn’t meet. And when he left the hospital, he allegedly forced his secretary to empty his catheter bag several times a day.
During the opening of Leopold’s criminal misconduct trial, a state prosecutor said Friday that the now 69-year-old executive’s actions were “egregious” and more than the misuse and mistreatment of county employees. Prosecutor Emmet Davitt told the judge hearing the case that Leopold’s actions amounted to criminal misconduct in office.
Leopold’s lawyer wove a different narrative in denying the criminal charges. Defense attorney Bruce L. Marcus described Leopold as a dedicated public servant, an intensely self-reliant and independent man who suddenly found himself with serious health problems as he campaigned for re-election in 2010. In the face of suggestions he was too old and too weak to serve, Leopold asked those closest to him to help, his lawyer said.
Leopold, who sat writing notes during the day’s proceedings, may have been “injudicious and unseemly” in his actions, his lawyer said. But he said the attention-grabbing and tawdry details of the case don’t amount to crimes.
“They may be viewed in the light of poor judgment, lack of social grace. But they do not rise to the level of criminal conduct,” Marcus said.
John Leopold is enigmatic, idiosyncratic and unconventional, his lawyer said, a “different kind of politician.” During a nearly hour-long opening statement Friday, his lawyer called him a “throwback to a simpler era.” He lives frugally in a blue-singled, two-story home. Leopold has devoted his life to public service, first as a lawmaker in Hawaii and later as a Republican state legislator in Maryland, his lawyer said. In 2006, Leopold was elected to head Anne Arundel County, the growing county between Baltimore and Washington that is home to 500,000 residents and the U.S. Naval Academy.
As he was campaigned for re-election in 2010, however, Leopold began to have excruciating back pain, said his lawyer, putting up a picture of Leopold’s misaligned spine. Treatment would require two surgeries.
Meanwhile, there were whispers that Leopold was too old and sick to be re-elected, his lawyer said. Leopold, a cancer survivor, decided to hide his weakness so it couldn’t be used by political adversaries. So, when a girlfriend showed up unexpectedly at the hospital, he asked for a second officer to be posted, his lawyer said.
Anne Arundel and several other Maryland counties assign police officers to provide security for their elected executives, at taxpayer expense.
Prosecutors say the second officer was posted to help Leopold conceal his relationship with the woman from his live-in girlfriend. And posting the second officer, prosecutors say, cost the county more than $10,000 in overtime pay.
But Leopold’s lawyer said Friday his client didn’t know about the overtime. Leopold, who gave back his own salary increase, didn’t approve the expense, his lawyer said. And when he learned of the overtime after his re-election, he initiated an investigation.
Around the same time, prosecutors allege, Leopold personally removed six of his Democratic opponent’s campaign signs, tossing them into ravines or the woods. His lawyer seemed to suggest Friday that the signs were improperly placed in the public right of way.
And when he asked for help from employees, he believed they were friends and working for a common goal, his lawyer said.
But on Friday, his secretary and scheduler Patricia Medlin testified she was never asked if she wanted to help with his personal care. Leopold just told her she would be emptying his catheter bag two or three times a day, she said.
“Patty, I need you now,” he would say when he wanted it done, she said.
Her voice broke as she described fearing for her job if she didn’t do as he asked, emptying the bag into a green coffee can under a bathroom sink, and from there into the toilet.
After he was charged with misconduct last year, Leopold said he was confident he would be cleared.
“When all the salient facts are known, I’m confident that we will prevail,” he said.
Leopold now faces four charges of misconduct in office: one for using officers to perform campaign activities like placing signs, one for having officers perform personal activities including picking up take-out dinners, one for stealing campaign signs and one for the police overtime incurred during his hospital stay. He is also charged with misusing county money for personal benefit, a charge that results from the overtime pay.
As a candidate for county executive in 2006, Leopold expressed skepticism about keeping the police security detail amid criticism of its costs, but he ultimately decided to continue using it.
Separately, Leopold also faces two federal lawsuits brought by women who were former employees, both alleging sexual discrimination. The ACLU has also filed a lawsuit in state court over the dossiers on political opponents Leopold is alleged to have created.
On Friday, the first day of what is expected to be a two-week trial, Leopold declined to discuss the case as he entered the courthouse, saying only “Good morning.”