'Sloppy' Work in the Sauerbrey Case

January 18, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

The name was Antonetti, Robert John Antonetti.

A court clerk said the name clearly as Mr. Antonetti was sworn in last week during the voter-fraud case brought by Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the 1994 candidate for governor.

For the record, the 58-year-old Prince George's County elections-board chief stated his entire name again.

But Mrs. Sauerbrey's lawyer, John Carbone, repeatedly referred to him as ''Mr. Angiotti.''

''Antonetti,'' the elections chief corrected each time.

If this was hyper-sensitivity, the elections administrator might be excused. He and his colleagues in the conduct of Maryland elections were charged with a fraudulent lack of care in the management of voters' names, lapses of accounting so rampant as to rob Mrs. Sauerbrey of victory and Marylanders of a fair election.

Mr. Antonetti's concerns were greater because he is president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials and a 25-year elections veteran. The charges of ''sloppy'' operations across the state cut to the quick of his professional identity. And many were saying the Sauerbrey challenge would leave a cloud over elections in Maryland for years.

Mr. Antonetti's record appeared enviable -- and the scope of an elections boss as presented in court showed how much is demanded and delivered. His Montgomery County counterpart, Frances Carol Evans, was also called as a witness and her work was also under the closest scrutiny.

Facing an inquiry by teams of election experts, high-powered lawyers and passionate volunteers -- and a probe that seemed on the order of an Internal Revenue Service audit -- Mr. Antonetti's operation emerged without blemish.

Mrs. Sauerbrey charged that 2,027 alleged criminals had been allowed to vote in Prince George's. This number melted to two as last week's trial proceeded and, according to the county attorney, Erik H. Nyce, the names of those two were never provided.

Another 35 persons allegedly voted improperly in Prince George's because they should have been ''purged,'' removed from the rolls when they did not vote for the previous five years. In fact, all 35 were eligible because they had voted in municipal elections, a piece of their voting record missed by Mrs. Sauerbrey's investigators -- but not by Mr. Antonetti.

It was this ''purging'' failure that became Mrs. Sauerbrey's most damning bit of evidence. In Baltimore, the chief elections administrator, Barbara Jackson, conceded that she had ''goofed.''

As of January 1, Maryland's five-year purge requirement was voided by federal law which extends for two more presidential elections the time before a voter would have to be removed. The purge is designed to prevent fraud by removing the names of the dead or the relocated lest they return in the hands of some political thief.

Mr. Carbone called Mrs. Jackson's lapse fraudulent and referred to her as ''the Baltimore bungler.''

While he said the elections operation in Baltimore needs attention, Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr. disagreed with this characterization.

''I find her to be a dedicated and conscientious employee who has done yeoman work under difficult circumstances,'' he said. It is at least instructive to know that Mr. Carbone was making $50,000 per month to challenge work done by Mrs. Jackson at the rate of $43,000 per year.

Outside the courtroom, Deputy State Attorney General Ralph S. Tyler III said he believes the trial disclosed a number of areas in Baltimore and throughout the state that may require change. Mrs. Jackson must find 2,000 election-day judges, for example, a task of some difficulty because so few citizens are willing to rise at 5 a.m. and stay until after the polls close.

''We don't have a real deep talent pool,'' said one city official. ''We take someone who looks like they're alive and breathing.''

If voting-machine keys are missing, if mistakes are made in recording votes, some of the blame may rest with the difficulty of training and supervising an army of one-day employees -- 10,000 of them statewide -- who are expected to make elections run smoothly with two hours of training.

But the ballot-box operation is only the most visible aspect of a bureaucratic enterprise virtually invisible except on election day.

Mr. Nyce, the Prince George's lawyer, offered the court a glimpse of the work done by election boards using Mr. Antonetti's as an example.

The 14-member Prince George's staff is asked to know the status of 314,000 registered voters, 23,000 newly registered in 1994. The election-district location of many of these voters has changed since the last election as a result of redistricting and the board had to make the changes -- in the midst of an earlier court case.

The ballot in Prince George's has 45 different ''styles,'' one for each of the various permutations of congressional, state senate and municipal offices. This year it included 11 ''questions,'' bond issues and the like which must be listed with precision.

Between the primary election in September and the general election in November of this year, the Antonetti team recorded address changes for 3,000 voters who informed the board, when they voted in the primary, that they had moved. All of this was accomplished virtually without flaw.

On the witness stand, as in the conduct of his daily tasks, Mr. Antonetti was demanding precision.

''It's my name,'' he said later. ''I wanted the record right.''

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun.

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