Election director's ethics case argued in Court of Appeals

Short-term hiring of relatives during votes defended by lawyer

April 12, 2001|By Marian Morton | Marian Morton,SUN STAFF

Howard County Election Director Robert J. Antonetti Sr. yesterday carried his extended fight with the state over alleged ethics violations to Annapolis, where the state Court of Appeals heard his lawyer offer a spirited defense of his employment of relatives while serving as elections administrator in Prince George's County.

The State Ethics Commission had reprimanded Antonetti in May 1997, finding him in violation of ethics laws that prohibit public officials from improperly participating in the employment of their family members and that require disclosure of employment records.

Antonetti was under fire for paying his wife and children $14,000 over a nine-year period.

He retired last year after 30 years as elections chief in Prince George's County to accept the same job in Howard County.

Temporary work

Antonetti's lawyer, William C. Brennan Jr., argued yesterday that while Antonetti did hire family members to do temporary work during elections, that action was not inappropriate or unusual for the Prince George's County Board of Elections.

"The answer is yes, Mr. Antonetti put his children to work two days a year, every other year," said Brennan.

But "there's no legal conclusion that he supervised any one of his children or his wife," he added.

Brennan also argued that Antonetti was not alone in hiring family members for temporary jobs during election periods.

"Other members of the board have their family members working for them" and have not been singled out for ethics violations, Brennan said.

Assistant Attorney General Randolph Sergent defended the ethics commission's decision to challenge only Antonetti.

He said Antonetti's role as elections administrator, responsible for hiring and signing employees' timesheets, made him particularly vulnerable to ethics charges.

Ethics laws require officials to "fully disclose the nature and circumstances of conflicts of interest," Sergent said. "There is no evidence of this disclosure," he said.

1997 finding appealed

Antonetti appealed the 1997 ethics commission finding, and the Prince George's County Circuit Court overturned the commission's ruling, clearing Antonetti in February 1999.

The state appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which upheld the Circuit Court's decision in September last year.

The ethics commission then sought review of the case by the Court of Appeals.

If the Court of Appeals agrees with the ethics commission, the commission could try again to seek penalties against Antonetti. It originally recommended a two-week suspension and a $7,500 fine for Antonetti.

The Court of Appeal's panel of six judges gave no indication of when it might complete its review, and State Ethics Commission Executive Director John E. O'Donnell said he could not predict when the commission might decide on possible action.

"We're hopeful that the court will give a thorough and reasonable judgment," Brennan said after the hearing.

Appointed in Howard

Antonetti, who did not speak during yesterday's hearing, was hired by the Howard County Board of Elections last summer after Prince George's County officials succeeded in a campaign to oust him from the office he had held for about three decades.

In addition to allegations of ethics violations, Antonetti had also been criticized for errors printed on Prince George's County primary election ballots in 1998.

Howard County officials justified their decision to hire Antonetti despite the controversy, saying that his extensive experience outweighed the problems he encountered in Prince George's County.

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