Former Calvert County sheriff Vonzell R. Ward pleaded guilty yesterday to leaking confidential internal police documents last summer to embarrass a rival candidate for sheriff and his ex-girlfriend.
Ward, who for months had denied faxing the documents to three newspapers, including The Washington Post, apologized for the controversy and for lying about it.
"I'm sorry that I did not come clean with the citizens at the onset of this," said Ward, 46. "I'm sorry I made the mistake of taking the low road."
District Court Judge Richard A. Palumbo ordered that Ward pay $100 to a local charity but did not give any jail time for the misdemeanor offense of disclosing confidential personnel files. Adhering to a plea agreement hashed out last week, Palumbo ordered that the conviction be stricken from Ward's record. Prosecutors dropped other charges -- including theft and destruction of personnel records -- that could have resulted in jail time.
Ward, a 6-foot-6 former Maryland State Police trooper, was Calvert's first black sheriff and was one of the most popular politicians in the county until he resigned in May 2001 amid a state prosecutor investigation of alleged misconduct. No charges were filed in that probe.
The charges concerning the leaked document came in August as Ward was mounting a comeback bid. The charges and a well-publicized search of his home in North Beach two weeks before the primary hurt his campaign, and he came in third in a four-way Republican race.
Yesterday, Ward acknowledged for the first time that he leaked documents to embarrass another candidate. On Aug. 8, he sent reporters an internal complaint that Don Brenneman, another Republican candidate for sheriff, had filed in 1999 against his ex-girlfriend, Sgt. Sheila Welling, who is now a lieutenant commanding the sheriff's patrol division.
Reporters were unaware that Ward sent the fax. One Calvert newspaper, the Recorder, subsequently published a story about the complaint. A sheriff's office investigation into who leaked the document quickly led to Ward.
Ward said he sent the complaint to reporters to embarrass Brenneman, who he said had made reference in August to old rumors that Ward abused children.
"I'm sorry he even said that. That's not true," Brenneman said.
Ward has hinted in the past that his political career is not over. Yesterday, he would not say whether he would run for office again, but some Calvert Republicans want him to make another comeback attempt.
"He got caught up in soap opera stuff," said Roger R. Tracy, a former Calvert GOP official who still recruits local candidates. "All he has to do is keep his nose clean, work for the party, and he can run for anything."