Howard County man sentenced for impersonating federal agent

An Ellicott City man who ran unsuccessfully for the Howard County Board of Education three times was sentenced Monday in federal court for impersonating a Secret Service agent in what lawyers on both sides agreed was a "sad" case.

Robert D. Ballinger II, 47, who pleaded guilty to one criminal offense in September, was ordered to serve two years of probation and 200 hours of community service after making an emotional appeal to U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett.

"I've made a big mistake in my life," said Ballinger, a former spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment who ran for school board in 2004, 2010 and 2012, advancing to the general election on his last two runs. He said he had "shamed" himself and his family, and "destroyed my career" in an attempt to cash a check using a Secret Service badge that he bought on eBay.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark W. Crooks called this "a sad case, for lack of a better word." He argued that Ballinger be sentenced to three months of home confinement.

Arguing for probation, Ballinger's lawyer, Leslie A. Stein, agreed with Crooks' characterization.

"He is in every sense of the word a decent, decent man" Stein said of Ballinger, who has no prior criminal record. He said Ballinger is being treated with medication for bipolar disorder and suggested his condition may have affected his judgment.

After the 45-minute proceeding, Stein said, "I think the judge showed compassion, balance and judgment."

Ballinger was charged in connection with an incident at a 1st Mariner Bank branch in Ellicott City on Feb. 14. Stein told the court that Ballinger was trying to cash a $300 check drawn on his father's account, and when the bank employees refused to give him the money, Ballinger showed a Secret Service badge that he had in his wallet to bolster his credentials.

Stein said in an interview after the proceeding that Ballinger's father went to the bank later to vouch for his son, but by then it was too late, as Ballinger had already shown the badge. He was never a member of the Secret Service.

Ballinger, who has been unemployed since he lost his job with the state in 2010, told the judge that he acted under "the pressure of not being able to be a proper father, the pressure of not being able to be a man."

He is married with two children and is a key caretaker for a son with severe autism, Stein said.

Bennett asked why Ballinger had bought the badge online, but Stein said he could not say. "I'm not sure Mr. Ballinger could answer that," said Stein, speculating that it "made him feel important."

Bennett expressed less concern about Ballinger's behavior than with the fact that he was able to buy the badge online, which he called "a very dangerous situation. The government needs to address it."

Bennett and Crooks said they were also troubled by the fact that Ballinger was able to get into a presidential inaugural event in Washington in January while wearing a Department of Defense pin that, according to the prosecutor's office, is "issued to Armed Forces personnel who serve as full-time military staff" to the president.

Stein said Ballinger also bought that bald eagle pin — which he said is available in Washington souvenir shops — online, but he was not charged in that incident. He said Ballinger did not flash the pin as a credential, but posted a photograph of himself wearing it on Facebook, which attracted the attention of federal investigators looking into the bank incident.

Ballinger has also posted on Facebook work experience that is apparently embellished. He claims to be a staff member for Republican Rep. Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania, but Pitts' communications director, Andrew Wimer, said Ballinger was an unpaid intern there for a few months early this year.

Ballinger also lists himself as "Director of Opposition Research and Communications" for the Maryland Republican Party, but Joe Cluster, the party executive director, said Ballinger volunteered for the party a few years ago and never held that high a post.

Greg Massoni, who was senior adviser to Robert L. Ehrlich's 2010 gubernatorial campaign, said Ballinger also was not involved in the campaign to the extent he claims on Facebook, where he said he had worked with top staff members "to develop and manage the end-to-end campaign effort."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com