Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Senator calls on Leopold to pay his own lawyers

To County Executive John R. Leopold, state Sen. Bryan Simonaire "reeks of hypocrisy."

7th Anne Arundel County Executive -- John R. Leopold
County Executive John R. Leopold
To Simonaire, Leopold "chooses to childishly attack the messenger."

Two of the county's top elected officials engaged in a war of words Tuesday, kicked off when the senator called on the executive to pay his own legal fees if he loses a federal discrimination lawsuit.

The day ended with Simonaire admitting he has hired one of the women suing Leopold as a new legislative aid, a move he said had nothing to do with his decision to write the letter.

Sen. Bryan Simonaire
Sen. Bryan Simonaire
Joan Harris sued Leopold in March, claiming she was fired from her constituent services job for not supporting his 2010 re-election. She joined former public information officer Karla Hamner, who sued Leopold in 2010.

"I went the extra mile to hire her, even checking with the ethics board. She was not involved with this letter to the executive," Simonaire said.

Neither the county executive nor his spokesmen would comment on Harris' new job.

In his letter, Simonaire asked Leopold to promise he would pay back his attorney fees. Leopold hired private attorneys in the Hamner lawsuit and the first bill topped $20,000. Some estimates put the potential cost of his lawyers at hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"To put this into perspective, two hours of your legal services are costing our county more than many residents make in a whole week," Simonaire wrote in a letter released to the news media on Tuesday.

Responding in an angry tone, Leopold emailed Simonaire saying he "would prefer to act as a judge and jury before I am afforded the opportunity to defend myself."

He called Simonaire a hypocrite and urged him to look at his own record spending thousands of taxpayers dollars on hotel stays during legislative sessions in Annapolis. Leopold did not directly address Simonaire's call for a promise, instead saying he has been a fiscally responsible excecutive who returned $17,000 of his salary rather than accept a pay raise.

Simonaire countered that he used the stipend granted lawmakers for hotels during the session in his freshman year, but has since opted to bring a sleeping bag to his office and when working late.

"Instead of addressing the issue facing our taxpayers, Mr. Leopold chooses to childishly attack the messenger and avoid the pledge — it shows the sad state of politics today!" Simonaire responded.

Leopold's lawyers were hired at the recommendation of County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson about a week after Hamner's attorney filed depositions from three county police officers. The officers testified under oath that Leopold ordered Hamner's firing after she was transferred to the county Police Department.

District Judge Catherine C. Blake had put the case on hold pending the outcome of Harris' lawsuit, as well as the state criminal case against Leopold. Leopold was indicted in March on charges of misconduct and misappropriation for allegedly misusing his police executive protection detail. His trial is scheduled to begin in January.

The exchange between Simonaire and Leopold, both Republicans from Pasadena, is just the latest sign that there is no love lost between the two men. The two waged a lengthy public argument in 2009 over property tax credits for seniors, and earlier this year over increasing county funding for mosquito spraying.

Other elected officials on Tuesday agreed with Simonaire that Leopold should pay his own legal fees if the lawsuit goes against him.

State Sen. Ed DeGrange, D-Glen Burnie, said it can be difficult to decide when a public officials sued for something done in office should pay the cost of his legal defense. He said that if he was was accused of wrongdoing he would pay for his own lawyers.

"It if turns that someone was falsely accused, then you should take steps to get a reimbursement," he said.

Del. Pam Beidle, D-Glen Burnie, said the decision to ask a public official to pay for his legal defense should be made on a case by case basis. But the former county councilwoman should pay for his own lawyers.

"The charges are unrelated to his job," she said.

The County Council is considering a bill that would require the county to sue an employee for legal costs if he is judged liable in a lawsuit.

Councilman John Grasso, R-Glen Burnie, said the council is revising the bill to make sure it is legal. A vote is set Oct. 15.

"It's a moral thing, if someone is found guilty of wrongdoing, they should reimburse the taxpayers. That is hard earned money that needs to be spent wisely," he said.

By Sara Blumberg, Staff Write,



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