- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2009

Anne Arundel County lawmakers say they find recent charges of harassment against county Executive John R. Leopold “serious and troubling,” with one member suggesting that he may have to step down if the claims are substantiated.

Two women, one a former press aide to Mr. Leopold, have come forward with complaints that he either harassed or made unwanted advances toward them.

The seven-member County Council does not want the controversy to become a distraction; it is scheduled to take up a bill Monday regarding the highly contentious issue of slot machines at Arundel Mills Mall.

“Obviously we can’t force these issues. We have to wait until there’s a conviction or some kind of determination of wrongdoing. I have full faith in the process, and I’m confident we as council members will continue to serve our constituents,” said Council Chairman Edward R. Reilly, a Republican.

The county charter gives the council authority to remove the county executive from office in the event he is “convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude, of misfeasance or malfeasance in office.”

No criminal charges have been filed in either complaint.

On May 8, a state worker and the Anne Arundel County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a sexual harassment complaint against Mr. Leopold. The complaint stemmed from a purported April 30 incident: A state employee said Mr. Leopold solicited her for sex while they were in a cafeteria line at the Arundel Center in Annapolis.

On May 14, a former staffer for Mr. Leopold also filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, saying he verbally and physically harassed her for months while she worked as his spokeswoman.

In addition, leaders with the NAACP reportedly have said that they are talking with another possible complainant, although no details have been released.

Mr. Leopold, a Republican, has denied the charges by both women, calling them “outrageous” and saying they were the work of those “who wish to gain political points.”

“Of course he will cooperate with any formal investigation, but he maintains that he has not harassed anyone,” said Mr. Leopold’s spokesman, David Abrams.

Council member Joshua J. Cohen, a Democrat, said that while he hopes the charges against Mr. Leopold are unfounded, the county executive should consider stepping aside if they are confirmed.

“The allegations are very serious and very troubling, and if they are true, I would seriously question his ability to continue in office,” he said. “I admire the women’s courage in coming forward; obviously that is not easy.”

The controversy comes as the council prepares to debate a bill, introduced by Mr. Leopold, to authorize a long-delayed proposal to put 4,750 slot machines at Arundel Mills Mall. The billion-dollar project, proposed by the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., is one of four gaming facilities that were approved by a state commission in February. Legislation to approve the project has been taken up by the council several times with no action.

If the council doesn’t pass the bill authorizing the project by June 1, the bill dies.

Of the council’s seven members, three have voiced support for the plan, two are against and two are undecided.

Council member Daryl D. Jones, a Democrat and one of the undecided votes, has said he is not against the concept of gambling. However, he is concerned about the impact the slot machines would have on the surrounding community.

The council’s constituents have not been too keen on the idea of slot machines at their local shopping mall. A recent survey from Anne Arundel Community College’s Center for the Study of Local Issues showed that 16 percent of Anne Arundel residents supported the idea of slots at Arundel Mills, while 44 percent said they would have rather seen the slots at another location, such as Laurel Park racetrack.

Daniel Nataf, political science professor and director of the center, said it would be a riskier move for the undecided members to vote for the proposal, given the public’s hostility to the measure.

“The downside to voting for slots is much clearer than the upside. It’s essentially a free vote to be against it,” he said. “Then again, there’s more than just re-election that’s being considered, so it’s a toss-up.”

Council members are optimistic they will not let the controversy around Mr. Leopold distract them.

“We’ve got a whole lot to deal with the rest of this month, be it the budget, to slot machines, to land deals, to what have you,” said council member Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Republican. “We’re going to make sure we concentrate on our priorities.”

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