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Judge strikes one charge against Leopold

ANNAPOLIS — The judge presiding over Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold’s misconduct-in-office trial dismissed one of five charges Friday: that he had used his security detail to drive him in 2010 to places where his election opponent Joanna Conti’s campaign signs were located.

Once there, Leopold allegedly removed the signs.

Judge Dennis M. Sweeney said the charge, if true, would not constitute official misconduct because the detail was simply doing its job of driving Leopold and he was acting “as a citizen” and not a county executive when he allegedly removed the signs.

The removal was “ill-advised” and an “absence of sound judgment” that might warrant a charge of theft or malicious destruction of property by a private citizen, but it was not official misconduct, Sweeney added.

Sweeney’s dismissal of the charge came in response to a motion from Leopold’s defense team for a judgment of acquittal after the state rested its case Thursday.

Leopold, a 69-year-old Republican, still faces three counts of misconduct in office and one count of fraudulent misappropriation by fiduciary, all misdemeanors and all related to his alleged misuse of his security detail in 2010 for personal and campaign activities.

After Sweeney’s ruling, the trial in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court continued with the defense’s first witness.

Orthopedic surgeon Roy E. Bands testified that he operated on Leopold’s spine at Anne Arundel Medical Center on Feb. 23, 2010, six days after the county executive came to him “writhing in pain.”

The defense contends that Leopold, who was formerly self-reliant, had to rely on his security detail’s assistance with personal and campaign errands because of his debilitating back pain, which required a second surgery, A related bladder condition compounded the pain and led to the placement of a catheter to help Leopold urinate, the defense said.

The trial is scheduled to continue 9 a.m. Monday.

After Sweeney’s ruling, Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said: “We’re happy to go forward with the other counts, and we respect the judge’s decision.”

Leopold’s defense attorney, Robert C. Bonsib, declined to comment on the dismissal of the charge.

“Whatever we say, we say in here,” Bonsib said, referring to the courtroom.

Sweeney’s decision followed a hearing on the acquittal motion Friday morning in which he grilled the prosecution over whether Leopold’s alleged use of his security detail to drive him to parking-lot trysts and for other personal errands constituted a crime.

Sweeney asked if it would be a crime if Leopold, who is unmarried, had the officers drive him to a hotel room for the alleged assignations rather than to a parking lot.

“The officers are not the moral police for the people they are protecting,” Sweeney told Deputy State Prosecutor Thomas M. “Mike” McDonough. “I’m having a hard time seeing where the dividing line is” with regard to criminal activity, Sweeney added.

McDonough replied that the alleged misconduct is not based solely on using officers for the assignations but for a host of other personal and campaign activities.

“It’s the course of activity over time,” McDonough said. Leopold was “ignoring the public good in order to benefit himself.”

Sweeney also was critical of Leopold’s defense counsel, saying the county executive’s alleged use of his officers to plant campaign signs and collect re-election donations could constitute criminal misconduct.

Leopold, a career politician, presumably knows that having sworn police officers participating in campaign work is “a wrongful activity, that there are laws governing these sort of things,” Sweeney told Bonsib, of MarcusBonsib LLC in Greenbelt.

Bonsib responded that “there is not a scintilla of evidence” that Leopold ever required the officers to participate in campaign activities.

Leopold stands accused of using members of his security detail — Anne Arundel County police officers — to compile dossiers on his perceived political enemies, including Conti; to plant campaign signs for him that year; and to collect and deposit campaign donation checks.

He is also accused of having had officers drive him to Annapolis-area parking lots and wait while he entered another vehicle to engage in sexual activity. In addition, Leopold allegedly had his security officers stand guard outside his hospital room after back surgery in 2010 to make sure his live-in partner and girlfriend did not run into each other during visiting hours.

Leopold also allegedly required his appointment secretary on several occasions to remove his catheter bag and dispose of the urine.

Sweeney, a retired Howard County Circuit Court judge, is presiding over the trial by special assignment.