Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman is calling on legislators to impeach embattled Sheriff James Fitzgerald.
The request from Kittleman, a former state senator, came after Fitzgerald’s comments to the media Thursday in which he announced that he would not resign from office. Should the legislature decided to act, Fitzgerald would become the first Maryland official impeached since 1851 when the authority to do so first appeared in the Maryland Constitution.
“I recognize that the impeachment of any elected official is an extreme step, one that should not be taken in haste,” Kittleman wrote to Sen. Guy Guzzone and Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, who chair the county’s Senate and House delegations, respectively. “But the offensive actions and behavior documented in the (Office of Human Rights) report are so grossly contrary to the shared values of inclusion and respect for all that we hold dear in Howard County that I see no other recourse.”
In an interview, Kittleman said the severity of the accusations and the “near unanimity of communities in the county” are good cause for Fitzgerald to either resign or be removed before the 2018 election.
“It might be different if he weren’t in law enforcement and this was a different office,” Kittleman said. “Do we want two years of having an office run by an individual who has expressed attitudes hurtful to minorities and women and has created a hostile work environment?”
A 48-page report by that county’s Office of Human Rights detailed findings of abusive treatment of employees and the use of racially charged comments about African-Americans and Jews, including allegedly referring to former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman as “little Kenny Jew Boy.”
A former sheriff’s lieutenant alleged he was “subjected to a severe and pervasive workplace environment” for not supporting Fitzgerald’s political campaign.
Kittleman said the law is clear that the ability to impeach the sheriff applies because it is a state office, an assertion backed up by a 1973 opinion from the attorney general.
Additionally, Kittleman said, the state constitution has no “high crimes and misdemeanors” threshold similar to the U.S. Constitution and so it is not necessary to wait for Fitzgerald to be charged with or convicted of a crime.
“While maybe it’s not a violation of criminal law, it could still be sufficient for impeachment,” Kittleman said.
Earlier in the day, Fitzgerald told reporters he would not resign amid accusations of discrimination and harassment against his employees.
On Thursday, Fitzgerald called the report “humbling, hurtful and disappointing for all involved.”
Guzzone said he and Atterbeary started looking last week at options to remove Fitzgerald, including impeachment. The senator said the first preference would be for the sheriff to resign.
The pair has already approached the Office of the Attorney General, which also represents Fitzgerald’s department, for an opinion.
A 1973 opinion issued by then-Attorney General Francis B. Burch states that a sheriff may be subject to impeachment. The opinion came after an inquiry by then-Gov. Marvin Mandel following a 32-count indictment of Frederick County Sheriff Richard O. Baumgartner that included charges of malfeasance in office and embezzlement. Baumgartner was ultimately found guilty of three of the charges and received a suspended four-year sentence and $250 fine.
The Maryland Constitution didn’t include the power to impeach officials until 1851. The power has never been used, according to research provided by legislative officials and the Maryland State Archives for a 1986 advisory letter written by Richard E. Israel, an assistant attorney general.
There has been no impeachment since that letter. Legislative sources said they had to go back to 1766, when Robert Swails was removed for cheating at cards, to find an example of another legislator removed from office.
It would be more than 220 years until Sen. Larry Young, D-Baltimore City, was expelled from the Senate. Young was later was acquitted of criminal wrongdoing.
Impeachments have also become less necessary because of changes made in recent years to the Maryland Constitution that automatically removes officials convicted of felonies and misdemeanors.
But the process for impeachment reminds unclear. It could look in some ways very similar to the federal process, where the House of Delegates investigates and the 47-member Senate ultimately judges the case, Guzzone said, adding that more research is needed.
“Obviously, we don’t do this a lot,” he said.
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