By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun
5:24 PM EDT, March 16, 2013
Does John Leopold have Sheila Dixon to blame?
He'll have plenty of time — 30 days to be specific — to contemplate such a cosmic question, as the former Anne Arundel County executive serves out the surprise prison sentence he received Thursday for misconduct in office.
The not-quite-hanging judge who found him guilty on two counts of misconduct and ordered him locked up was Dennis Sweeney, who in 2009 presided over the trial of another public official gone wrong: former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon.
Dixon escaped without prison time — and with more of her dignity intact if only because her crime involved the embezzlement of gift cards rather than the emptying of catheter bags.
(A brief sidebar: Corrupt politicians, let this be a lesson to you. Disgust over bodily fluids will trump mere pocketing of cash, at least in the minds of your former constituents. Unless, of course, you up the indelible-imagery ante by stuffing it down your brassiere or flush it down the toilet, as former Prince George's County Councilwoman Leslie Johnson did.)
I don't know that you can make a direct apples-to-apples comparison of the Leopold and Dixon cases, although behind both their troubles is quite obviously an abuse of the privilege and trust of their public offices. But Sweeney himself connected the dots Thursday.
He pointedly scolded Leopold for failing to heed the lessons of a certain "chief executive of a neighboring jurisdiction" who was forced to resign, who could be no one but Dixon. And, he continued, the disposition of that case — Dixon received probation, fines and community service as part of a plea deal — apparently wasn't enough to deter Leopold from similarly abusing his authority.
So Sweeney ordered handcuffs and something of a perp walk for Leopold, another humiliation for someone who had already had his parking lot assignations and other embarrassing misbehaviors exposed over the course of the state prosecutor's investigation and ultimate indictment and trial.
Quite a different outcome from Dixon's, who walked out defiantly even after signing off on a deal in which she pleaded guilty to embezzlement, kept a more than $80,000-a-year pension and got probation rather than prison time. You have to wonder if Sweeney was galled by how, even with this nice deal, Dixon fell behind on the payments to charities that were also part of the agreement and was charged with violating her probation. (She ultimately paid up.)
In the end, it probably doesn't matter whether Leopold has Dixon to blame for his prison sentence — he was found guilty, and as any schoolchild knows, the but-Sheila-was-bad-too argument never gets you anywhere.
Leopold, it should also be said, is not exactly facing hard time. He'll be behind bars for 30 days, not even amid the general population but in a single cell in a building for convicts with more serious medical issues.
Still, I have to admit, I felt a bit sorry for the guy. I've never met him, although I talked to him on the phone several years ago for a column, and he certainly lived up to his earlier reputation for quirkiness. I don't believe I've ever interviewed another government official who told me he also considered himself an abstract expressionist painter.
But that's part of the problem, I think. Not the abstract expressionist part — although give me a good cubist painting any day — but the fact that whatever sympathy is out there for Leopold comes because we know he is more than his crime.
Lord knows how many nameless, faceless people are jailed every day for far longer than Leopold — and who likely had far fewer resources to wage the kind of defense that the former county executive did. And whose crimes may not have hurt as many as Leopold's arguably did, given his violation of his elected duties.
Plus, as with Dixon, more troubling stuff came out than either was ultimately convicted of in criminal court: Dixon's coziness with developers, particularly one Ronald Lipscomb, to whom she could help steer significant tax breaks; the allegations of sexual harassment and a Nixonian political enemies list that are the basis of lawsuits against Leopold.
Maybe the real surprise of the sentence is that jail time wasn't requested by the prosecutors, or expected by a public that sees political corruption in a different light than other criminal offenses.
Sweeney's blunt words on Thursday — he called Leopold's behavior "outrageous" and "egregious" and said Leopold deserved "condemnation" — were reminiscent of how he sent Dixon away after her own sentencing. She left office, he said, "in total disgrace."
At Dixon's sentencing, Sweeney took the opportunity to laud city officials for reforming their ethics laws after her indictment, adding that he hoped "it will have a shelf life beyond the next election.
"If not," he said, "then the city will be doomed to repeat the cycle of petty and tawdry corruption."
Sweeney didn't realize he should have added: "And I'm talking to you too, neighboring jurisdictions."
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