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Md. governor accuses judge involved in Purple Line lawsuit of conflict of interest

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said the judge weighing a Purple Line case is biased because of where he lives and his wife’s connection to a group that has opposed the light-rail project. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has publicly criticized a federal judge weighing whether to allow the state to begin building the Purple Line, saying the judge is biased because of where he lives and his wife’s connection to a group that has opposed the light-rail project.

The problem: The governor’s statements about the judge living along the Purple Line route are incorrect, and the “opponent group” for which Hogan said the judge’s wife works appears to be an umbrella civic group whose leaders say they can’t recall her ever attending a meeting.

Hogan made the comments about U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon on Wednesday after taking umbrage at a reporter who asked whether the governor regretted “putting the Purple Line on hold” when he took office. Hogan had criticized the light-rail project during the gubernatorial campaign as being too expensive but gave it the go-ahead six months after taking office in January 2015, saying that the state had reduced its upfront construction costs.

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“We made the decision to move forward. . . . we committed the funding,” Hogan said. “Now there’s a judge who happens to live at the country club that the thing runs through that’s making the decision to hold it up.”

Hogan added, “Right now, even with federal funding, we can’t move forward because of a judge who lives at Chevy Chase Country Club.”

Leon’s Chevy Chase home is two miles from the closest planned Purple Line station and about three miles from Columbia Country Club, which has previously fought the light-rail project because trains would bisect its golf course.

The Chevy Chase Club, which is a different country club and has not vocally opposed the Purple Line, is 1½ miles north of the judge’s home.

Hogan also said he told U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in a recent meeting that the project needs the $900 million in federal construction aid that the state has been expecting.

“But Secretary Chao can’t do anything about a judge whose wife happens to be involved in the opponent group and who has a conflict of interest who’s making the decision to hold this up,” Hogan told reporters.

Leon declined to comment through a court spokeswoman and did not respond to emailed questions.

Hogan’s accusations are remarkable because they come at a delicate time for the project. Leon is reconsidering his August order that suspended the Purple Line’s federal environmental approval, which the state needs to clinch the critical federal construction grants. Meanwhile, federal grants for new transit projects have become precarious under a recent Trump administration proposal to abolish money for any projects that don’t already have federal funding agreements.

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Amelia Chasse, a Hogan spokeswoman, said Thursday that the governor is frustrated by Leon’s “inexplicable delay” in issuing his latest ruling.

Chasse said Hogan wants to move forward on a project in which the state has already invested more than $300 million.

“He is frustrated by the delays stemming from this judge and concerned about the disturbing reports that conflicts of interest could be at play in the process,” Chasse said.

The “opponent group” that the governor said Christine Leon is active in appears to be the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights, an umbrella civic group that includes the Leons’ neighborhood organization, the Brookdale Citizens’ Association.

Christine Leon is one of about 25 block captains in the Brookdale Citizens’ Association, a role that association leaders describe as circulating the group’s occasional newsletters and welcoming new residents. The Brookdale association has not taken a position on the Purple Line, leaders said.

Two leaders of the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights said they could not recall seeing Christine Leon at a meeting. A Friendship Heights committee representative testified against the Purple Line’s draft environmental study in 2008, saying that the state hadn’t sufficiently studied the impact from new development that the Purple Line would bring or fully considered alternative alignments that would spare the wooded Capital Crescent Trail — allegations also raised by the plaintiffs opposing the project.

Bob Cope, a past chair of the Friendship Heights group who also lives in the Brookdale area, said the group hasn’t actively opposed the Purple Line since 2008, and he doesn’t recall seeing the judge or Christine Leon at a Friendship Heights meeting.

As a block captain, Cope said, Christine Leon’s main duties would be distributing the Brookdale Bugle four times a year and keeping the neighborhood phone directory up to date for her street’s residents.

“How do you get from block captain to conflict of interest, unless you jump through reality?” Cope said.

In explaining the governor’s remarks, Chasse emailed snippets from three media stories that included allegations from transit activists that the location of the judge’s home and his wife’s involvement in their civic group posed potential conflicts of interest.

One of the accounts Chasse sent was a WAMU story stating that Leon lives across the street from Martin Wiegand, a former vice president of the Columbia Country Club. The club had opposed the Purple Line before reaching an agreement with the state in 2013.

Reached Thursday, Wiegand said he was “quite upset” to be linked to any allegations of judicial bias. He said that the Leons live several houses over, across the street, and that he rarely runs into them.

“I’ve never spoken with Judge Leon about the Purple Line,” Wiegand said. “I haven’t spoken to Judge Leon in probably three years. Judge Leon is one of the finest people I’ve met, and a conflict of interest would not be something he’d be involved with.”

Chasse said Hogan stands by his comments. It’s unclear how far Hogan plans to take the allegations.

The office of Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), which represents the state in the Purple Line lawsuit, has not filed any motions asking Leon to recuse himself. Frosh’s office referred questions to the governor’s office.

A state official, who asked not to be identified because of the pending lawsuit and personnel limitations, said, “There are no pending allegations of conflicts in this case.”

A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment on Hogan’s statements.

When asked why the state hadn’t requested that the judge recuse himself, Chasse said in an email that the attorney general and the Justice Department have asked Leon to rule by April 28.

“We’ll see what happens at that point,” she said.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.