Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler on Wednesday defended the appointment of a key aide to disgraced former Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold as his top legislative and community outreach employee.
The sheriff also said he will stand by campaign promises to keep the agency’s aviation unit and helicopter in service for at least one more year, even as a part-time civilian appointee engages in a review of the unit, its utility, and its cost.
Gahler on Tuesday announced the appointment of Erik Robey, Leopold’s former chief of staff, as Community and Legislation Liason. In that role, Gahler said Robey will be his primary link to Harford County Executive Barry Glassman and the Harford County Council and advance the sheriff’s legislative agenda, as well as spearhead the agency’s community outreach efforts.
Also announced was the appointment of Robert McGainey as a part-time, temporary HR specialist who will conduct a review of the aviation unit and the Eagle 1 helicopter, unveiled by former Sheriff Jesse Bane just over a year ago. According to biographical information released by the Sheriff’s Office, McGainey retired from the Maryland State Police as a lieutenant colonel with more than 34 years of service, including 20 years in the state police Aviation Command.
Both positions are civilian appointments. Gahler said he made the appointments directly, rather than conducting an open hiring process, to expedite the start of their work.
“I had specific people in mind that I knew had the talent to come in and do the job on day one,” Gahler said in a brief interview with The Dagger Wednesday afternoon. “I intend on making changes, and making changes quickly.”
Robey, a Bel Air resident, joins the Sheriff’s Office after a stint at Crovato Products, a Temple Hills-based automotive service company. Prior to that, he spent more than 10 years in various positions across Anne Arundel County government, ultimately rising to become Leopold’s “defacto” deputy campaign director in his successful 2010 re-election bid, according to court documents.
Robey was Leopold’s chief of staff, and was serving in that position when Leopold was indicted in March 2012 on a spate of misconduct charges centered around his misuse of a police protection detail for tasks such as investigating political rivals, deploying his own campaign signs and removing others, and ferrying him to public venues for sexual encounters with girlfriends.
According to reports at the time, Robey testified that he dropped off campaign signs at Leopold’s house for police to distribute, and received dossiers on the county executive’s political enemies prepared by police. Both activities were central in a Howard County judge’s January 2013 verdict against Leopold on two counts of misconduct in office.
According to one report, Robey testified that he accepted a deal of immunity in exchange for his testimony. However, in the verdict, Judge Dennis Sweeney noted that Robey “told [Leopold] that he did not think having the officers put in signs was appropriate and suggested that the campaign hire a college student to do it instead of having the officers do it,” but that Leopold rejected the suggestion.
Gahler said he was aware of Robey’s involvement in the earlier case when he approached him for the Sheriff’s Office position.
“It certainly gave me pause,” he said. “I knew it would come up as an issue. We had long discussions about it. Unfortunately, he was in a bad situation with an employer—and I don’t know all the details of the case, I know he [Leopold] resigned, he was found guilty—but he [Robey] was asked to do things he shouldn’t have been asked to do and didn’t feel he had the ability to say no.”
“That is ancient history in my mind,” Gahler said. “There is a great difference between that situation and the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.”
Gahler said he first met and became friends with Robey approximately 18 months ago, placing their meeting in the summer of 2013, several months after Leopold voluntarily resigned from office following his conviction and sentencing to a $100,000 fine and two years in jail with all but 30 days in jail and 30 additional days of house arrest suspended.
Among Robey’s primary legislative tasks will be serving as Gahler’s champion on Second Amendment issues. In an August letter to The Dagger, Gahler said he would work to help repeal state gun control laws and would not enforce “any unconstitutional law that infringes on the Second Amendment Rights of Harford County Citizens and will use the power of the Office to fight the legal battles needed to have such laws repealed or thrown out.”
Gahler said Wednesday that additional details on those efforts would be forthcoming; the state General Assembly is set to convene Jan. 14.
Robey will also be charged with building on existing relationships between the community and the Sheriff’s Office. Gahler did not offer exact specifics on any upcoming initiatives, beyond a series of “Coffee Chats with the Sheriff” planned for the near future.
“I’ve credited Sheriff Bane with building bridges into the community, and I want to build on that,” the sheriff said. “Mr. Robey is the person to do that.”
McGainey’s position will constitute 24 hours per week to start, Gahler said, with an option to adjust the amount of time he works based on need. He will conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the unit and the helicopter, weighing whether it duplicates services already provided by other agencies such as the Maryland State Police, and whether the unit’s value is worth its cost of operation. Gahler said McGainey’s findings would likely be made public along with the sheriff’s final decision, but did not set a timeline for completion of the review.
“I committed to maintaining the aviation unit for a year,” he said. “It [the review] will take as long as it takes. The process of bringing it here according to Sheriff Bane was 18 months; it won’t take that long.”