Maryland Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone asked a judge yesterday to block the Board of Elections' attempt to oust her, as two leading Democrats accused the Republican-dominated board of blatantly abusing its political power.
In a move that triggered a full afternoon of legal and political jockeying, election board Chairman Gilles W. Burger (R) announced that Lamone had been placed on paid leave for unspecified complaints that rose to the level of "incompetence, misconduct or other good cause."
The board then immediately named Robin Downs Colbert, Prince George's County elections administrator, as acting chief of the state agency.
Democrats said the personnel action, decided at a seven-hour session Thursday, was little more than a partisan bid to take control of the state's election machinery before two key contests -- the presidential race in November and the governor's race in 2006. Burger stressed that Colbert, a Democrat, has 25 years of experience as an election official.
Within hours of her suspension, Lamone and a team of lawyers arrived in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court to seek a restraining order to keep the board from firing her. A hearing was set for Tuesday.
By late afternoon, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) had weighed in, issuing a rare joint statement in which they said the election board appeared to have violated the law by suspending Lamone without giving her a chance to defend herself.
Miller called the board's action "a blatant abuse of political power and an embarrassment to Maryland." Busch said in an interview that he and Miller are discussing holding joint legislative hearings "to shine as much light on the issue as we possibly can."
The flurry of activity came a day after a marathon, closed-session of the board at which members said they plowed through a stack of complaints from local election officials and others about Lamone's leadership.
Democrats have accused the board of conducting a partisan witch hunt encouraged by the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). Burger dismissed such allegations as "nonsense" during a news conference and said he had not spoken with the governor's office since July.
Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the governor would not comment on yesterday's board action. "Board business is board business," she said.
Lamone, who was appointed by Ehrlich's Democratic predecessor in 1997, has been the target of Republican grumbling for years. But GOP board members did not have the votes to oust her until Ehrlich appointed a Democrat, Gene M. Raynor, who had spoken out against the administrator.
In brief comments to reporters yesterday as she left court, Lamone said she had "inherited an office that was in shambles, and my staff and I have built it into one of the finest in the nation."
By law, board members must present an administrator who they intend to remove with written charges stating the grounds for dismissal and then provide "ample time" for a response.
Burger said the board had delegated its authority to hold a hearing on Lamone's situation to the Office of Administrative Hearings, an independent state agency. Three days of hearings have been scheduled starting Oct. 13, he said, during which Lamone can present evidence and call witnesses.
An administrative law judge will then present findings of fact to the board, which will make a final determination about whether to retain Lamone, Burger said.
"The decision is not pre-made," Burger said. "The decision might be that she comes back."
Democrats dismissed that notion as laughable and derided the board for not disclosing any of its allegations against Lamone. Burger said the panel was prevented by law from doing so.
"They better have something that registers very high on the Richter scale to do this right before a national election," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery). "They better be talking about some significant malfeasance."
Democratic officials who were quick to condemn Lamone's ouster said they feared that the move meant Ehrlich plans to use the Board of Elections as a political weapon -- or at least could.
"You can audit campaign reports. Ignore things. Decide things to go in your favor," said Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "If you wanted to use [the election office] in a partisan manner, you could do it easily."
Lamone's replacement, Colbert, worked for 17 years at the state Board of Elections before going to Prince George's in 1998 and taking over the office in 2000. Colbert, 42, said board members approached her about the position about a month ago.
As president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials for the past few years, she had attended monthly state board meetings and frequently brought problems to its attention.
She said fears that the office would be used for political purposes are unfounded.
"I don't think the governor or the board micromanages the agency that way," Colbert said. "I don't think politics plays into elections."
Charles C. Deegan, who was a Republican member of the Prince George's election board until June, said he had insisted the panel retain Colbert even when Republicans gained a majority on the panel after Ehrlich's election. "I'm a big fan," Deegan said.
But many Democrats remained unconvinced, pointing to what happened in Florida in 2000 with a partisan election official with close ties to a Republican governor and a controversial recount that is blamed for costing Democrat Al Gore the presidency.
The fact that Colbert is a Democrat is "window dressing," said John T. Willis, former Maryland secretary of state.
"Linda is an extraordinarily competent individual," he said. "Personality aside, she knows what she's doing, she's . . . well respected around the country. For this to happen to her, it's going to raise eyebrows around the country, not just here."
For years, Republicans have said that the election process is unfair to them, said Richard E. Vatz, a political science professor at Towson University.
"Ehrlich won [in 2002] by 3 percent of the vote, but did he actually win by 4, 5, 6, 7 percent?" he said. "Republicans are not comfortable with the control of the election board in the hands of people who are capable of producing victories where there may not have been victories."
Vatz said Republicans began complaining about unfair elections procedures in 1994, after Republican Ellen R. Sauerbray lost in a tight and contested election to Democrat Parris N. Glendening.
Beyond the politics, there were ample signs yesterday of the tension between Lamone and board members.
Burger said he sought to summon Lamone to the Board of Elections office to present her with the board's written charges both Thursday night and yesterday morning. Because Lamone did not respond, Burger said the charges had to be sent to her through certified mail.
Burger said the decision to sideline Lamone while charges are pending was in the agency's best interest and in her best interest.