Elections board workers take plea deal
cleveland.com (2007-11-05) Karl Turner
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A special prosecutor ended a two-year drive to convict two county elections workers for rigging a ballot recount during the hotly contested 2004 presidential election.
In a plea deal announced this morning, prosecutors let the two women take probation without admitting any wrongdoing.
Jacqueline Maiden, the board's third-ranking staff member, and middle manager Kathleen Dreamer each pleaded no contest to negligent misconduct and failure to perform official duties during that November general election. The charges are, respectively, a felony and a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 18 months in prison.
That's exactly the sentence Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Peter Corrigan imposed last March after a jury convicted Maiden, 60, and Dreamer, 41, of those same charges. But Ohio Chief Justice Thomas Moyer ordered that another judge hear the defendants' argument for a new trial because Corrrigan appeared biased toward the prosecution.
The upshot of that: Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold ordered a new trial, which was to begin on Monday.
Instead, the three-year-old case withered away.
Typically, after a no-contest plea, a judge finds a defendant guilty or not guilty. But under the plea deal's terms, Saffold made no finding. If the women don't break any laws during their six-month probationary period, the case against them will close, and they can have their records wiped clean.
Despite that, Baxter said he is satisfied and vindicated. The no-contest plea, he said, is an affirmation that the prosecution's facts and allegations are correct, Baxter said.
"As a prosecutor, you're looking for a fair resolution, not necessarily just a conviction," said Baxter, who is the Erie County prosecutor. "The bottom line that we still say today is that the recount was manipulated. .$?.$?. We still believe that. But at the end of the day, these two ladies took some responsibility for their actions."
Dreamer, 41, and Maiden, 60, declined to comment afterward. But Dreamer's attorney, Roger Synenberg, emphasized that the defendants absolutely did not take any responsibility.
"If that had been a condition of this plea, we would've gone to trial," Synenberg said. "They're not accepting responsibility because they didn't do anything wrong.
"That might be Kevin's spin on this, but that's not the way it was."
Synenberg also said he will press the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections to pay his "substantial" legal fee.
"The board said it would pay if there was no finding of guilt," he said. "Well, there is no finding of guilt."
At issue was how the board and its staff conducted a sample recount of ballots after third-party candidates demanded a countywide vote recount. That sampling was meant as a test of the validity of tabulating machines; if a hand count of the sample - 3 percent of the county's votes - proved the machine count accurate, the board could assume the broader automatic tabulation was also accurate and forego a tedious, expensive and potentially embarrassing hand recount of all 600,000-plus votes.
The board staff rigged the sample count because the precincts actually were secretly selected in advance of the closely watched recount, said Baxter, who was brought in to try the case because Mason is the board's lawyer. The pre-count ensured the 3-percent sample included only precincts whose hand and machine counts matched.
Dreamer, Maiden and a third worker, Rosie Grier, were charged for the fudging. They countered that the board had always done things that way - with the knowledge of its attorney, one of Mason's assistants.
"There was no evidence to that effect - none," Baxter said.
He faulted the media for spreading that "convenient misrepresentation," and for falsely portraying the board managers as low-level employees. Such media portrayals, and a string of editorials in The Plain Dealer that blasted the prosecution as an "overreach, weakened the prosecution's moral foundation by persuasively misrepresenting the case's facts," Baxter said.