The Sun

Judge attacked for role at event
Before appointment by governor, Leasure aided his fund-raiser

by Shanon D. Murray SUN STAFF The Baltimore Sun

October 8, 1996 Page(s): 1B
Edition: FINAL
Section: METRO
Length: 1107 words
Index Terms:

Record Number: BSUN475112


Howard County Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure's involvement in planning a fund-raiser for Gov. Parris N. Glendening held just days before she was appointed to the bench last year is drawing sharp criticism from her electoral opponents and a government watchdog group.

Leasure -- who was appointed by the governor with Judge Donna Hill Staton on Oct. 24 -- was one of a dozen people who served on a planning committee that organized a $350-a-person golf tournament sponsored by a Howard County law firm for the governor Oct. 16.

Her application for a judgeship was before Glendening at the time.

The day after the fund-raiser, about a dozen applicants for two open county Circuit Court seats were interviewed by Glendening.

They included Leasure, Hill Staton and their two opponents in the Nov. 5 general election, Howard County District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and Columbia attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, according to a spokesman for the governor.

After their appointments last fall, Hill Staton and Leasure earned spots on the general-election ballot by winning the Democratic primary in March.

Gelfman and Smith won the Republican primary at the same time.

"It looks like she was leveraging an advantage in this judgeship," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group. "It's inappropriate for a judicial candidate who has an application pending before the governor to be involved in a fund-raising activity for him. It taints the process."

In an interview yesterday, Leasure said her "minimal role" in planning the fund-raiser -- which yielded $17,000 for the governor -- was not improper.

She said a longtime friend, Robert H. Levan of the former Levan, Schimel, Belman and Abramson law firm, asked her to participate and she obliged.

`I was a bit player'

"I feel like I was a bit player in a one-act play," she said. "When someone is an attorney, there is no prohibition involved in being part of an activity like this. There's absolutely nothing inappropriate about it. I have a clear conscience."

Leasure, 44, said she attended two planning meetings for the fund-raiser and the event itself.

The judge said she did not buy a ticket to the event, nor did she sell any.

Leasure, then a partner in a top Prince George's law firm, donated $875 to Glendening's gubernatorial campaign in October 1994, according to Common Cause.

Her running mate -- Hill Staton, then with a prominent Baltimore law firm -- donated $100 to Glendening a year earlier.

Neither Gelfman nor Smith is listed as a Glendening campaign contributor, Povich said.

Timing called coincidence

Raymond C. Feldmann, a spokesman for Glendening, said the timing of the fund-raiser and the subsequent Circuit Court interviews was a coincidence.

"It's insulting to Diane Leasure and it's extremely unfair to the governor to make a connection between this particular fund-raising event and her appointment to the Howard County bench," Feldmann said. "The governor respectively disagrees with anyone attempting to make a connection. It's an outrageous allegation."

Supporters of Gelfman and Smith, who long have accused Glendening of politicizing the nominally nonpartisan judicial appointment process, recently have been trumpeting the timing of Leasure's involvement in the fund-raiser to area media -- as just the latest chapter in what has been an unusually contentious judges' race.

To increase diversity

Glendening has acknowledged that he appointed Leasure and Hill Staton to increase diversity on the Howard bench. Leasure and Hill Staton are the first women on the county Circuit Court, and Hill Staton is the county's first black judge.

But Gelfman and Smith are seizing on the Glendening fund-raiser to try to show that Leasure -- the top vote-getter in the Democratic primary and second overall to Gelfman -- is not worthy of retaining her Circuit Court seat.

"It created the appearance of some sort of effort to ingratiate herself to the governor," said Smith, who added that he was invited to the fund-raiser but did not attend. "Why else would she have done it? She was helping to put thousands of dollars in the governor's coffers. It was way over the line."

`Sends the wrong message'

Gelfman said Leasure's participation in the fund-raiser "sends the wrong message. It's inappropriate and it shows poor judgment."

Howard E. Wallin, a professor at the University of Baltimore law school and former secretary of the Commission on Judicial Disabilities, said rules that restrict sitting judges' activities do not apply to attorneys.

"If someone put in a judicial application, you can't say they can't participate in partisan politics," Wallin said. "If you're not a sitting judge, the rules don't apply to you. I don't know of any judicial ethics opinion that says otherwise."

As a planning committee member for the "1995 Parris Glendening Open," Leasure was approached about 10 weeks before the event to help plan the tournament and sell tickets, said Robert Levan. About 50 people attended the fund-raiser at Cattail Creek Country Club in Glenwood.

"This was not an event designed to promote her judicial candidacy," Levan said. "Diane Leasure didn't need a golfing event to get access to the governor. There was nothing she could have done that day to add to or subtract from her standing with the governor."

Defending fellow judge

Added Hill Staton, speaking of the Gelfman and Smith campaign: "It's a search for a reason why the other people weren't selected by Glendening. It's another stretch."

Supporters of the two challengers also have tried to make an issue of Leasure switching her party affiliation in her voter registration from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party.

Leasure said yesterday she has "gone back and forth between parties" throughout her lifetime, adding that she became a Democrat around 1990.

Switching the last time "had nothing to do with my desire to be a judge one day," she said.

Pub Date: 10/08/96


Caption: Appointee: Judge Diane O. Leasure, shown in 1995, served on the planning committee for a Howard County fund-raiser for the governor held eight days before her appointment.


Copyright 1996 The Baltimore Sun Company