Probe of elections chief is defended

Critics see political ploy in inquiry into Lamone

'witch hunt' alleged

A response to 'complaints'

Use of a public safety investigator questioned

August 28, 2004|By GREG GARLAND AND FRANK LANGFITT | GREG GARLAND AND FRANK LANGFITT,SUN STAFF

The head of the state elections board defended yesterday the panel's decision to bring in an investigator to look into unspecified "complaints." But a growing chorus of critics called the inquiry a politically motivated witch hunt aimed at ousting elections administrator Linda H. Lamone.

Chairman Gilles W. Burger said the five-member board was "obligated to conduct a factual investigation" of "multiple complaints from a variety of sources, including several local boards of elections."

He would not discuss the nature or source of the complaints, saying he could not comment on "personnel issues."

Burger issued a statement yesterday after The Sun reported that a veteran investigator from the state public safety department's internal investigation unit has been assigned to get information on Lamone's performance, apparently to build a case to fire her.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has made it known that he wants to replace Lamone, a holdover from the Glendening administration, and critics are challenging the motives behind the investigation.

"It's ridiculous," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster and a former member of Baltimore's elections board. "A politically motivated purge of one of the most conscientious and professional members of the state administration is a full-fledged retreat into the culture of corruption."

State elections supervisors had long been appointees of the governor, but Maryland law was changed in 1998 to buffer the office from politics after allegations of fraud and bias stemming from the razor-thin 1994 race for governor between Democrat Parris N. Glendening and Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Ehrlich appointees now control the state board that oversees the elections office. But the panel can dismiss Lamone only if it documents a valid reason, such as malfeasance or poor performance in office.

Ehrlich role denied

Aides to the governor did not return phone calls yesterday seeking comment, but Burger said Ehrlich played no role in the board's decision to get an investigator.

"Governor Ehrlich's office had nothing to do with this," Burger said. "This is a board action. We have an obligation to address the complaints."

Lamone, 62, is an attorney who this year was elected president of the National Association of State Election Directors. She has declined to comment on the board's investigation.

Burger also had refused to comment Thursday but offered a public response yesterday after he was confronted with a copy of a confidential memo bearing his signature that confirmed the decision to bring in an investigator.

"Please be advised that Lieutenant Edmund O'Leary ... has been authorized by a majority of the State Board of Elections to conduct an investigation on behalf of the Board," the Aug. 10 memo states.

Full authority given

The memo says that O'Leary has full authority to obtain any statements, documents, e-mails or other materials, "whether confidential or sensitive," believed relevant to the inquiry.

Burger said that he talked to board members individually in July and received the support of a majority of them to seek outside assistance for its investigation.

Since the board had no staff to conduct such an investigation, he said, he arranged to borrow an internal affairs investigator from the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Deputy Attorney General Donna Hill Staton said Burger's request for assistance came to the attorney general's office, which directed him to the Office of Personnel Services and Benefits.

"I think it went from there to looking around for who would be available to assist," she said.

Looks 'political'

After reviewing the confidential memo and Burger's statement yesterday, state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said, "it makes it look a lot more political - if it could look more political."

Frosh questioned why the state board would not turn to traditional agencies for help if it had issues that warranted investigation. "Has he ever heard of state police or legislative auditors?" Frosh said. "It looks like a witch hunt, and a political witch hunt."

Joan F. Beck, a Republican and an Ehrlich appointee to the elections board, said the vote took place during a closed executive session of the board in late June or early July.

"I voted to give the authority to the chairman to do so," Beck said. "It was discussed that it would have to be a professional-type investigation."

Changes to law

The changes to state election law adopted in 1998 permit the elections board to select the administrator, who oversees Maryland's 24 local boards and certifies results.

Under this law, the board can remove the administrator only for "incompetence, misconduct or other good cause," and the approval of at least four of the five members is required.

Glendening appointed Lamone in 1997 to replace Gene M. Raynor. Ehrlich recently appointed Raynor to the election board, and Raynor has also called for her ouster.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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