Just two weeks before the city’s election, Aberdeen is proving once again that when it comes to politics, no tactic is off-limits.
A police report filed earlier this summer against a notable local figure has come to light in what may be an effort to turn a dubious allegation into a political hit.
According to the report, former State Senator and Harford County Councilman Art Helton was not charged earlier this year after a 32-year-old woman who rented one of his properties accused him of harassment.
It’s curious that the report comes to light now, months after authorities dropped their investigation, but just ahead of another tight city election.
Helton dismissed the accusations, which were levied in a police report made public last week, claiming the woman “was either mentally irate or on something.” He said the woman and one of her co-workers admitted to him that the accusations were made in an effort to embarrass and defame him after their landlord-tenant relationship went sour.
The authorities seem to agree.
Five days after the woman walked into the Aberdeen police station and lodged her complaint, the Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office had ruled that “there were no grounds to file criminal charges” and the Aberdeen Police Department had closed the case.
Helton said there had been problems with the tenant before, including a drunken brawl within her business that was broken up only when police showed up wielding mace. The woman also allegedly stripped Helton’s property of its sink, cabinets, washer, dryer and other appliances before she moved out about two weeks ago – the subject of a separate police report that Helton has filed against her.
Much more interesting than the non-charges against Helton is the timing of the release of the police report bearing her accusations. The authorities canned their brief investigation months ago, but in an Aberdeen election, nothing stays buried.
“It’s sort of strange that my ‘political friends’ were doing something with this,” Helton said in his office last weekend.
Since the argument in late July that he claims led the woman to make her accusations, Helton has been hearing rumors: rumors about the alleged harassment, rumors about the timing of the report and condition of its release, and rumors about how or why his tenant might have filed the report.
Helton declined to name names, but said he’s certain previous political enemies aren’t beyond “encouraging” someone to tell a story to police.
The Aberdeen Police Department cleared the report on August 14, yet it took a flurry of Public Information Act requests from numerous interested parties before the report was finally released to the public last week. Aberdeen police referred requests for the document to the City Clerk and City Attorney.
Helton claims he’s not much of a public figure anymore, but the former senator is a major player in Aberdeen politics and beyond. Also, until quite recently he had serious aspirations to regain his place in the state senate.
Since his 2002 loss to Nancy Jacobs, Helton has mostly been content to sit back and support other candidates, including his wife Ann, in their political endeavors. But recently he had been on a spirited campaign for the District 34 senate seat, keeping supporters updated on Facebook and Twitter, creating a website in some stage of construction, and plastering his truck with dozens of “Helton For Senate” campaign signs.
Then Helton abruptly dropped out of the race on September 4. His detractors, comprised largely of has-beens and hangers-on displaced when the last administration was voted out of City Hall, immediately linked the August police report to the decision. But Helton said there was a much more simple and serious reason for his withdrawal from the campaign.
While cleaning up at his church in late August, Helton said he fell down a flight of stairs, split a door with his head and ended up in the hospital for several days. His head was OK, but tests indicated he had an irregular heartbeat.
Helton said he was scared and put health and family ahead of politics when he dropped out of the campaign.
But the end of his own campaign didn’t keep Helton out of politics. On September 2, Helton participated in a controversial New Harford Democratic Club meeting during which incumbent Mayor Mike Bennett was narrowly endorsed over challenger Mike Hiob. Helton has also remained a key figure in the campaigns of Bennett and several city council candidates.
Today, with his health apparently again under control, Helton said he will likely decide by the first of the year whether to attempt another comeback.
“I care and I know I can make a difference,” he said. “Maybe I won’t get that chance.”
Helton hinted that his decision to continue pursuit of the senate seat may depend on how his “political friends” decide to use this latest bit of ammunition against him, and how well he will be able to retaliate. Helton said he is prepared to seek legal counsel and react accordingly, depending on how his detractors strike.
Meanwhile, those detractors are salivating behind the scenes, waiting to spring when the complaint is made public, but unwilling to make it public themselves.
It could only be a matter of time – this is Aberdeen, after all, and we’re entering the most raucous time of the year – the countdown until Election Day.
Over the last few years, the height of the local election season in Aberdeen has given birth to a variety of campaign shenanigans small and large, hilarious and horrendous. Here are a few of the Greatest Hits:
March of the Redshirts:
A group opposed to local development, whose members live largely on the fringe, or in some cases, even outside city limits, unified their cause in 2006, donned similarly-hued shirts, and started raising hell at City Council meetings. Through a series of often contentious public meetings, the Redshirts were able to gain traction and enough petition signatures to take the Wetlands annexation to referendum during a special city election.
Save the Wetlands:
In a last-minute ploy to inaccurately inform the electorate into complete confusion, the Wetlands annexation team unveiled its Save the Wetlands campaign. “Save the Wetlands” didn’t mean protecting areas of vulnerable natural resource areas from development. It literally meant “Save the Wetlands Golf Course,” and came with alarmist pronouncements from the golf course owners that without approval of the annexation plan—which at the time included a provision to maintain the golf course—the land would still be developed, but the golf course would not be saved.
Just before a December 2006 special municipal election regarding annexation of the Wetlands, a flyer was circulated reading “Don’t Be Fooled By the Wetlands Developers” and “A vote for annexation will doom The Wetlands.” More importantly, the flyer included the phrase “Instead of preserving the land, annexation could result in up to 7,800 townhouses.” The Wetlands annexation was ultimately defeated, but that claim would resurface nearly a year and another election later.
Political opponents learned 2007 mayoral candidate Mike Bennett had a dark secret in his past involving the theft and fraudulent use of questions to a Maryland State Police exam. Rather than immediately breaking this news for the public good, Bennett’s detractors planned to ambush him with it during the FOP Candidate’s Night forum. The plan was cut off at the pass when The Dagger interviewed Bennett prior to the forum and he came clean with the full story. Even with the story out in the open, it took an 11th-hour truce for the slate of Helton-supported candidates to agree to participate in the forum.
A grassroots campaign successfully invalidated the candidacy of Helton’s handpicked 2007 city council candidate Steve Johnson. This was accomplished when Johnson, who apparently lives in both Aberdeen and Perryman, dropped his legal opposition to the Board of Elections nixing of his candidacy. But his decision may have been fueled in part by a suspicious mailer sent by a suspiciously named group with the same mailing address as another pro-Johnson citizens group. The letter was purportedly mailed by an entity calling itself Concerned Citizens For a Fair Aberdeen Election, and asked for Helton, Johnson and Johnson’s wife, Julie, to be taken off the city voter rolls. The back of the letter contained a petition for citizens to fill out and mail to city elections judge regarding the rights of the trio to participate in Aberdeen elections. Most mysteriously, however, the flyer used the address for another prominent citizens group, Aberdeen Communities Together, which had been supporting Johnson’s candidacy from the beginning.
A week after Johnson’s candidacy crumbled, a cartoon caricature was circulated illustrating the alleged relationship between Helton (puppet master) and his candidates Bennett, Johnson and incumbent councilwoman Ruth Elliott (the be-stringed puppets). Under the title “Art Helton Properties,” the anonymously distributed artwork helped cement Helton’s image as the one pulling the strings behind the scenes. Perhaps proud that his reputation finally made its way onto an artist’s canvas, Helton still has a copy of the caricature, now two years old, hanging from a bulletin board in his office.
Eleven months after the special election in which the Wetlands annexation was soundly defeated by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, its proponents struck again. Still smarting from the loss and hoping to repay the favor to one of its main opponents, the Wetlands annexation group filed a $15 million defamation suit against Helton, his wife, and the New Harford Democratic Club over their anti-annexation flyer (“Save Aberdeen,” above).
The suit alleged the flyer was purposefully misleading because the annexation agreement would have maintained the golf course for 20 years and that the 7,800-unit figure was ridiculously high because it was apparently calculated using the greatest possible density on the total site acreage.
Why did the Wetlands annexation team sit on the libel suit for 11 months, only to unleash it just five days before Aberdeen’s 2007 election? Officially, it had to do with a one-year statute of limitations on the charge. Unofficially, it had everything to do with payback and the now-classic Aberdeen last-minute campaign twist.