Arundel executive Leopold under investigation by state prosecutors

State prosecutors are investigating whether Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold misused government resources by directing his county-funded security detail to carry out campaign activities, according to witnesses who say they were interviewed in connection with the probe.

John M. Singleton, an attorney acting on behalf of five members of Leopold’s security detail, said they are negotiating an immunity deal with the Office of the State Prosecutor that would allow the county police officers to provide information to investigators without threat of prosecution.

The county’s fire union chief and Leopold’s former political challenger also said they were contacted by an investigator from the state prosecutor’s office regarding the county executive’s use of his security detail.

State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt, whose office is charged with prosecuting public officials, would not confirm or deny an investigation, citing his office’s policy not to comment on what could be a continuing inquiry.

Leopold, a Republican in his second term, said Wednesday he had “no knowledge” of an investigation but acknowledged that his security detail carried out tasks for him as he was recuperating from back surgery last year. He also criticized his rivals, calling the allegations “political retaliation” and pointing specifically to his recent efforts to alter the county’s binding arbitration agreement, which have angered public safety and other employees.

“There are all kinds of ways state prosecutors can get complaints; that doesn’t mean they have any substance,” said Leopold. “People can make complaints all the time.”

According to those who say they were interviewed by investigators, the inquiry has focused on a couple of alleged incidents, including members of Leopold’s security detail being directed to pick up a campaign contribution check and to remove campaign signs of Joanna L. Conti, a Democrat who lost last year’s election to Leopold.

While Anne Arundel and most large jurisdictions provide taxpayer-funded security to its executives and mayors, government employees are generally prohibited under the law from carrying out campaign activities while on the job.

Officers detailed to Leopold serve as drivers and provide security at county events. The cost to provide the service topped $250,000 in 2010 — a $45,000 increase from the previous year, according to information obtained by The Baltimore Sun under a Maryland Public Information Act request. The data shows increasing overtime accounted for the lion’s share of the increase.

Officers who work on Leopold’s security detail have declined to comment through Singleton and O’Brien Atkinson, president of the county’s police union. Atkinson said he plans to offer the union’s attorneys should the officers “need legal advice or any guidance.”

Singleton, an attorney who is separately representing several women in a $10 million federal lawsuit filed against Leopold last year alleging sexual harassment, gender discrimination and workplace retaliation, said Wednesday he has spoken with the prosecutor on behalf of the officers.

“I have been in contact with the office of the state prosecutor to put together some type of immunity agreement for those officers or other public officials who are reporting wrongful acts by those in the Leopold administration,” said Singleton. “People have been scared to death of coming forward, and this would allow them to avoid any type of public prosecution for acts that might be considered illegal acts.”

Sources with knowledge of the investigation said Major Ed Bergin, commander of the Police Department’s special services unit, which provides security to Leopold, met with Davitt on Wednesday afternoon. Bergin declined to comment.

Conti said she was contacted Wednesday morning by an investigator from the state prosecutor’s office about allegations that Leopold may have directed members of his security detail to remove Conti’s campaign signs. Conti said she told the investigator that she heard rumors her signs were being stolen, but she did not have any evidence and did not file a police report.

“The problem is, I didn’t have any proof then, and I still don’t have any,” Conti said.

Craig Oldershaw, president of the firefighters union, said he was contacted late last week by a member of that state prosecutor’s office and spoke with him about an incident that took place in late September. He said the investigator indicated hearing that Oldershaw was “one of the ones that Leopold sent his driver to, to pick up a check.”

Oldershaw said he told the investigator that a member of the detail picked up a $4,000 check from the firefighters’ political action committee after an event during which union officials interviewed candidates. The union’s office manager and the PAC chairman were there, he said. Oldershaw’s claims were first reported by The (Annapolis) Capital newspaper.

“I thought it was a little unusual, and a little much, taking advantage of his county-paid detail to do that,” Oldershaw said. He said he had not recalled that happening previously.

The firefighters and other unions are negotiating their contracts, which expire in June, and Oldershaw was among public safety union leaders who angrily opposed Leopold’s successful move to alter the county’s binding arbitration process with the unions, giving the County Council final authority in labor disputes.

Oldershaw said he planned to send a copy of the campaign donation check to the prosecutor’s office as early as Wednesday. The Anne Arundel Fire PAC gave Leopold’s campaign a total of $5,250 last year, according to the state campaign finance reports.

Leopold said he does not specifically remember sending a member of his security detail to retrieve the check, but he said it is possible because of his condition as he recovered from surgery.

“If I had been physically able, I would have picked it up myself,” said Leopold. “I’ll call it buyer’s remorse. People who make campaign contributions [to] me can’t expect any outcome. They gave me this amount of money expecting a certain result, and they didn’t get it. Clearly, this is political retaliation for my efforts to free up the County Council to make final decisions on arbitration awards.”

Leopold added that while it “did not occur to me legally it was an issue, now having given it some thought, it was probably best for me to pick it up.”

Atkinson called Leopold’s claim of retaliation “ludicrous.”

County Councilman Daryl Jones, a Democrat, said while the allegations are “really peculiar,” he planned to reserve judgment until the conclusion of the investigation.

“I do think it would be inappropriate if he was using his security detail for his campaign,” said Jones.

The police detail has two full-time corporals, who worked overtime on the detail, as well as three other officers who worked overtime in part-time capacities for Leopold’s security.

The marked increase in the security detail’s overtime not only took place during the election year but during budgetary belt-tightening and agency cutbacks, including 12 furlough days for county employees. Last year, police officers got a 5 percent pay cut instead of furloughs to prevent a manpower shortage. That led to union complaints that unlike other county employees, law enforcement officers were paid less and worked the equivalent of furlough days.

Each of the two who worked full time on the security-driver detail earned about $96,000, including overtime, in 2009. That grew to more than $113,000 and $115,000 for each in 2010. All overtime for the entire security detail doubled last year, the data provided by the county show.

Leopold said the increase in overtime pay was the result of an “inordinate number of campaign events.” He said he has fewer officers in his detail than his predecessor and that the costs have dropped since the election and his recuperation.

“Now that I am physically able to drive myself, the overtime expenses have decreased dramatically,” said Leopold.

In recent years, it has become increasingly common for county executives, not only top elected city and state officials, to have routine protective details. Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties’ executives have them. Harford does not.

In Montgomery County, security for the county executive, done through a separate, non-police unit, cost less than $190,000 in the past two fiscal years, according to county officials. Both figures include overtime.

The security personnel spend half their time protecting Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, and the rest on other security matters, Patrick Lacefield, a county spokesman, said in an e-mail. Security for the executive has been provided for nine years, predating Leggett in office, Lacefield said.