Anne Arundel, Md., County Executive Accused of Harassment

John R. Leopold calls allegations unfounded.
John R. Leopold calls allegations unfounded. (Marvin Joseph/twp - The Washington Post)
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By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009

A Maryland state worker has sent a letter to her employer complaining that Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold made an unwanted advance toward her last week in the county headquarters' cafeteria.

In the letter, obtained yesterday by The Washington Post, the woman describes a conversation with Leopold at the cafeteria checkout line in which he asked for her home phone number and a chance to meet with her.

In addition, another woman, a former county employee, came forward yesterday upon hearing of the allegations and said that Leopold had physically and verbally harassed her when she worked for him and that he once grabbed her by the arms and yelled at her.

Yesterday, Leopold (R) said he did not remember the alleged encounters described by the women. He called the complaint filed by the state employee without merit and said he expects it to be dismissed swiftly. "I would never ask questions like that," he said. "On the face of what you're telling me, it's completely inaccurate. I resent that kind of accusation."

The state employee, Marvenise Harris, who is African American, sent the letter to the NAACP and to her employer, the Office of Child Support Enforcement in the state Department of Human Resources. Harris's agency has an office in the county government building.

Through an intermediary, Harris declined to be interviewed, but in her letter, she says Leopold's advance occurred April 30 while she was waiting to pay for her food in the cafeteria line at the Arundel Center in downtown Annapolis.

The letter gives the following account:

Leopold asked for Harris's name and lifted up the work badge hanging around her neck to look at it. Then he asked whether she was married, and when Harris told him she was single with two children, Leopold responded, "a nice looking woman as yourself?"

He finished paying at the cash register, but would not move forward, forcing Harris and others behind her to stay in line. When he asked how he could reach her, she offered her work phone number, but he said he wanted her personal number. Harris told Leopold that she didn't date outside of her race, and he asked her several times "why not," rejecting her explanations.

"I simply said, I just don't and then he said it doesn't have to be a date. . . . I felt at this time he was propositioning me for sex," Harris's letter says. "When Mr. Leopold said, 'you mean to tell me you are going to turn down all of this,' he took his hand and [waved] it from his shoulders to his private area."

The encounter ended after Harris reached around Leopold to put her money in the cashier's hand, the letter says. Harris says in her letter that the encounter left her shaking, crying and feeling humiliated. "The incident has left me in a position that I feel threatened and no longer want to leave my work area for fear of running into him again," she says in the letter, which also gives the names of two workers in the Arundel Center who she says saw the exchange.

A witness, who was in the cafeteria at the time, said, "She was trying to get him to back off, and he just kept after her. He kept trying to ask her where she lived." The witness -- who works in the Arundel Center and said she wants to remain anonymous because she is afraid of losing her job -- said five people besides Harris and Leopold were in the cafeteria during the exchange.

The other woman to accuse Leopold, former county employee Karla Hamner, said yesterday that she had kept quiet about her physical confrontation with the county executive out of fear that she would find herself unemployed. After hearing about Harris's allegations, she said, she decided to speak out when The Post approached her yesterday.

Hamner was hired by Leopold in 2007 and served as his spokeswoman. Hamner said that a few months after she was hired, Leopold became "obsessed" with her hair, insisting that she keep it out of her face. "It started out as a joke and then just got worse," she said.

Hamner said she was taking notes for Leopold in his fourth-floor executive suite on April 16, 2008, when he grabbed her arms and yelled at her, telling her to face him and to get her hair out of her face.

"I had never experienced something like that," she said. "I began having nightmares and was scared of having more confrontations."

Hamner said she spoke to a supervisor immediately after the incident but did not know whether the supervisor followed up her complaint. A few weeks later, she decided she wanted to leave Leopold's office and explained her situation to the county personnel director, who discussed a communications job opening in the county police department.

"I told her I wanted to keep my job with the county, and I wasn't going to file a complaint," Hamner said. She got the police job, but before her three-month provisional period was over, she was let go.

Hamner said she has not been able to find a job since and has moved to Arkansas. She said she has hired an attorney and is planning file a complaint against Leopold.

The women's allegations come after an incident involving Leopold early this year. On Jan. 30, an anonymous 911 call reported possible sexual activity in a parked car at the Westfield Mall in Annapolis. After an officer found Leopold in the back seat of his government-issued car, police deemed the report "unfounded" and did not file a written report.

Leopold has not explained what he was doing at the mall, but he dismissed the matter as "rumors and gossip."

Staff writers John Wagner and Lisa Rein and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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