Accused racist Howard County sheriff to resign

Howard Country Sheriff James Fitzgerald announced his resignation
Howard Country Sheriff James Fitzgerald announced his resignation

Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald, who recently came under fire for alleged racist and anti-Semitic statements, will resign from office after numerous calls for him to step down.

Fitzgerald was expected to sign an agreement Tuesday stating that his last day in office would be Oct. 15, according to Howard County Council Administrator Jessica Feldmark.

Among the remarks detailed in a Sept. 1 report by the county’s Office of Human Rights were Fitzgerald referring to former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman as “little Kenny Jew-boy” as well as derogatory comments about African-Americans and women. The sheriff was also accused of retaliating against deputies who did not support his re-election in 2010.

Ulman was in the middle of teaching a government and politics class at the University of Maryland, College Park when his cellphone frantically started lighting up with texts and calls.

His consulting firm, Margrave Strategies, was trying to reach the him to tell him about the just-released report.

Ulman, a Democrat who was candidate for lieutenant governor under Anthony Brown’s unsuccessful 2014 bid, said he was “surprised but not shocked” to hear of Fitzgerald’s alleged controversial remarks.

“Despite being called names myself, I have very thick skin after being in office for 12 years,” Ulman said. “What bothered me was the totality of what [Fitzgerald] had done, creating a hostile, bullying workplace that brought politics into a government workplace.”

The 48-page report stunned a community known for its racial, social and economic diversity.

Prior to his resignation announcement, a wide range of elected officials called for Fitzgerald to resign from his post, including five members of Maryland’s Congressional delegation — Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D) and Ben Cardin (D) and Reps. Elijah Cummings (D), Dutch Ruppersberger (D) and Rep. John Sarbanes (D).

“As federal elected officials with responsibilities for the people of Howard County, we urge you to prioritize the needs of the residents of the county you serve, as well as the officers under your command, and resign your office,” the five wrote in a statement.

Former and current Sheriff’s Office employees, interviewed during the nearly year-long investigation, told the Office of Human Rights that Fitzgerald ruled by fear and intimidation, among other demeaning tactics.

On Sept. 29, Fitzgerald issued a statement apologizing for the attention surrounding the accusations, but said at the time that intended to stay in office despite increasing political pressure to step down.

“I can say that the report has been humbling, hurtful and disappointing to all involved,” Fitzgerald said at the time in the prepared statement. “It has caused me to reflect on what is important to my family, our community and the men and women deputies that I have served with at the Sheriff’s  Office.”

On Monday, County Executive Allan Kittleman (R) issued a statement expressing his disappointment that Fitzgerald had ignored calls from his  office, other elected officials and community leaders to resign. He also announced that he was directing the county’s law office to explore “any and all legal means” through the court system to relive Fitzgerald of his duties.

Last week, Kittleman asked the county’s representatives in Annapolis to explore whether the General Assembly could impeach the third-term sheriff. State lawmakers do have the authority to impeach state judges and officers

Under the state constitution, elected officials, such as Fitzgerald, may be removed from office if they are convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor related to their conduct in office that carries potential jail time. Fitzgerald, however, had not been charged with any crime.

The House of Delegates holds the sole power of impeachment, but a majority of the House must agree to oust the official. A trial also would need to be held in the Senate, requiring a two-thirds vote from all senators for conviction.

No government officer has ever been impeached under the procedure, according to The Daily Record.

Fitzgerald and his representatives did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment.

Ulman, who maintained a professional working relationship with Fitzgerald for more than 10 years, hoped the sheriff would walk away on his own power so that impeachment would not have to be explored.

“My sense is that he’s going to leave office one way or another,” Ulman said prior to Fitzgerald’s resignation. “Whether or not he does it on his own is forced out, it would be nice if he could see the writing on the wall and resign graciously. Unfortunately, it will be a spectacle in Annapolis if he doesn’t choose to resign.”

In Howard County, Ulman said, the Sheriff’s Office “does very little,” providing courthouse security, dealing with landlord-tenant evictions, transporting prisoners and serving protective orders and warrants. The Howard County Police Department, led by Chief Gary Gardner, is  the primary law enforcement agency of the county.

For many in the Jewish community like Ulman, they hoped to see Fitzgerald forced from his position in as timely a manner as possible, citing a lack of trust from someone who should put the community’s best interest at heart.

Seth Bernstein, director of the Howard County Board of Rabbis and Rabbi at Bet Aviv, called on distraught Jews in the county to share their frustrations with local politicians.

“It’s very important right now for Jews who feel this type of language need not continue by [Fitzgerald] to write legislatures to tell them they want the sheriff impeached,” Bernstein said prior to Fitzgerald’s resignation. “I think such letters should be written for people who feel strongly about this issue.”

Bill Crystal, a Jewish Howard County resident of 25 years, cannot recall a time there has been such racial turmoil, especially from someone whose duty is to protect and serve the public. He thought Fitzgerald was no longer fit to continue in his current role, he told the JT prior to the resignation announcement.

“To me, it’s just baffling that someone who works in [Howard] County makes comments like that, then [defended] himself in front of the constituency and [refused] to resign,” Crystal said.

This is a developing story.

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