Howard County Sheriff James F. Fitzgerald refused to resign Thursday morning amid continuing protests over allegations that he made racist, sexist and anti-Semitic remarks.
Brief but defiant during a news conference, Fitzgerald acknowledged the tense atmosphere that has gripped the community since last week’s release of a report by the county’s Office of Human Rights detailing offensive remarks he is accused of making. But he did not directly address the allegations. Instead, he argued that the report was only one investigator’s opinion and that he would remain in office.
“Although there are those that denounce and accuse and can only see the words that are in the report, I love Howard County and all it stands for,” the three-term Democrat said during a prepared, seven-minute speech.
“My inspiration now is: How can I better serve? How can I be part of the solution to the challenges that face our community?” he said, adding that he could “lend years of experience here in Howard County and in other locales to be part of the solution.”
Those years of experience are now under scrutiny, however, after the 48-page report accused Fitzgerald of disparaging the intelligence of black deputies, using racist gestures and often describing African Americans as “n-----s.” Fitzgerald also allegedly made derogatory comments about women’s breasts and Jewish people, calling former county executive Ken Ulman (D) “little Kenny Jew-boy.”
The report shocked many in a community renowned for its inclusiveness and its “Choose Civility” bumper stickers. The county consistently ranks among the wealthiest counties in the nation, and Columbia, its largest city, was founded in the 1960s as a planned community promoting racial tolerance. This month, Money Magazine ranked Columbia the “best place to live” in America.
On Thursday, County Executive Allan H. Kittleman (R) sent a letter to state lawmakers asking them to investigate whether Fitzgerald can be impeached. “I recognize that impeachment of any elected official is an extreme step, one that should not be taken in haste,” he said. “But the offensive actions and behavior documented in the OHR report are so grossly contrary to the shared values of inclusion and respect for all that we hold dear in Howard County that I see no other recourse.”
Kittleman is among the elected officials across the political spectrum who have called for Fitzgerald to step down. Under Maryland law, elected officials cannot be recalled but must be removed if convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving “moral turpitude.”
Fitzgerald is serving his third term and manages a department of 69 people. He is paid $91,000 a year, according to a county spokeswoman.
Fitzgerald called the report “humbling, hurtful and disappointing to all involved.” He did not address whether he made the remarks and would not take questions from reporters.
The sheriff said he had hired 14 of the department’s 19 African American employees and promoted its first black commander. “This represents my ongoing commitment to diversifying the office,” he said.
In Howard, the sheriff’s office primarily acts as an arm of the court system, transporting prisoners and issuing summonses. The police department handles most law enforcement.
The sheriff’s refusal to step down disappointed a small group of protesters, who were not allowed to attend the news conference, held at the county’s Thomas Dorsey Building in Columbia.
“We didn’t get a chance to see the expression on his face,” said Sherman Howell, 72, a retired software engineer who stood under an umbrella in the rain outside the building. He said there is “no choice” but for Fitzgerald to resign. Howell, who lives in Columbia and is black, added that he had heard the sheriff joke about African Americans, “fried chicken” and “watermelon” in the past — accusations mentioned in the Human Rights Office’s report.
“That is a constant thing of his,” he said. “You can’t trust anyone who takes that kind of an attitude.”