Judge restores Lamone to post

State elections chief back in job until at least Friday

Partisanship alleged in firing

Elections board hearings scheduled for next month

September 08, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Linda H. Lamone was back in her office yesterday as Maryland elections administrator until at least Friday morning under a temporary restraining order granted by an Anne Arundel County judge.

Within two hours of entering the courtroom yesterday morning, Lamone strode back into the state elections office, where a dozen employees greeted her with applause and cheers. Some of the workers dabbed away tears as they exchanged hugs with Lamone. The acting administrator who had taken her place left before Lamone arrived.

"I, obviously, am very happy to be back at work," Lamone said. "There's a lot of work to do between now and the election."

A staff member handed Lamone her office key, which she had been forced to surrender.

The court order was an agreement between Lamone and the state elections board, which announced Friday that it had filed charges to remove her from office and had suspended her with pay. The board named Prince George's County elections chief Robin Downs Colbert the acting administrator.

Besides issuing the temporary restraining order, Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth scheduled a hearing on a preliminary injunction for Friday morning. In that hearing, the two sides will argue whether Lamone should continue in her job while waiting for an administrative judge to decide the merits of the election board's case against her.

Despite the order and Lamone's return to work, Gilles W. Burger, the election board chairman, cast doubt on her legal status yesterday. Emerging from the hearing, he said that Colbert remains the acting administrator. He refused to say whether Colbert or Lamone would be in charge.

Assistant Attorney General Steven M. Sullivan, who argued the board's case, declined to comment.

Jay P. Holland, one of Lamone's attorneys, said: "The order is clear in and of itself: Ms. Lamone is to be state election administrator without interference."

Elections staff members said Colbert was in the office in the morning but was gone by the time Lamone arrived.

Yesterday afternoon, Colbert was back in her office in Prince George's County. She said she had rescinded her resignation from her post there but had not spoken with Burger about what yesterday's hearing meant. "I'm prepared to do whatever and let it all play out," she said.

The board did not reveal any of its charges against Lamone on Friday, and they didn't emerge in the motions Lamone's lawyers filed or in her appearance before Silkworth yesterday.

Instead, yesterday's arguments and Friday's hearing for a preliminary injunction address accusations made by Lamone and backed up by the top leaders in the General Assembly that the elections board has no authority to suspend her or to appoint an acting administrator.

A law passed in 1998 made it more difficult to remove an elections administrator, a move designed to insulate the post from partisan politics. The board can remove an administrator only with a vote of four of the five members, and only then if it can show "incompetence, misconduct or other good cause." The administrator then can present a defense.

Lamone argued that the board's decision to suspend her and install an acting administrator would cause irreparable harm to her career, send the state's preparations for the November election into chaos and cast the results under a shroud of partisan suspicion.

Democratic legislative leaders have repeatedly said that the move to oust Lamone is a partisan witch hunt. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch issued a joint statement Friday saying they believe the suspension is illegal and promising to investigate.

Yesterday, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, also questioned the board's actions, saying he has yet to hear "any substantive reason" for its moves.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not commented on any of the board's recent activities. In the past, he has made it known that he wanted Lamone out, and the effort to remove her has accelerated in recent weeks as his appointees took control of the board. But yesterday, the governor's office did not respond to a request for an interview.

In her court action, Lamone is seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions against the election board, returning her to work and "requiring that any termination of the plaintiff may only be accomplished by four affirmative votes of impartial, valid board members."

The elections board has scheduled hearings on the merits of its case against Lamone before an independent agency, the Office of Administrative Hearings, next month.

But Lamone's attorneys say that action is illegal as well. They argue that one of the members of the board, recent Ehrlich appointee Gene M. Raynor, himself a former state elections chief, is legally disqualified from passing judgment on Lamone because he has previously said he thinks she should be fired and thus could not render an impartial decision.

Her attorneys also argue that he is not a valid board member. Ehrlich appointed him after the term of Democrat Bobbi S. Mack expired. But Lamone's lawyers say that because she has not resigned, he cannot take her place until he is confirmed by the Senate.

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