State prosecutor scrutinizing Montgomery County’s referendum effort -- Gazette.Net



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Montgomery County’s campaigns to sway votes in favor of two referendums will be subject to a criminal investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor.

State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt wrote county leaders Monday saying that his office will investigate whether the county and its employees committed criminal violations of state law through its advocacy “for” ballot questions A and B.

Election law violations are punishable by a fine up to $25,000, and/or a year in jail. Violations of local government laws face a fine of $3,000, and/or six months in jail, according to Davitt’s letter.

Ballot Question A asks voters whether they support amending the county charter to give the council ability to create a hiring authority for individuals with mental and physical disabilities.

Question B asks voters whether they want a bill to become law that repeals how Montgomery County Police bargain the effects of management decisions.

Montgomery County has launched websites for both ballot questions. It has also produced posters, fliers, bus advertisements and bumper stickers for Question B.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said the state prosecutor’s letter was an “unimaginable stretch” on Davitt’s part.

“It’s an over-the-top and far-reaching letter to be sent to public officials without even contacting us first,” Leggett said.

Patrick Lacefield, county director of public information, whose office has led the advocacy efforts, also noted that the state prosecutor’s office had not contacted the county before sending the letter. Had Davitt done so, both Leggett and Lacefield said he would have been informed that the county’s actions were cleared two years ago.

In response to Davitt, County Attorney Marc P. Hansen wrote that two years ago he consulted with Jeffrey Darsie, assistant attorney general representing the State Board of Elections, when the county used its funds to similarly advocate for support of an emergency medical services transport fee and the county was not found to be in violation of the law.

“I am disappointed that you would threaten to prosecute unidentified County employees and officials,” Hansen wrote Davitt. “These individuals have done nothing more than give voice to the County’s official position in support of Questions A and B in this November’s ballot.”

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 requested the state prosecutor’s investigation. Davitt’s letter did not mention the FOP, but it did say his office received a complaint.

The state prosecutor’s office was created in 1976 to investigate ethics and election law violations, as well as misconduct by public officials.

The union alleges the county’s advocacy is unlawful political activity by county government employees working on the job and by the expenditure of public funds to engage in one-sided political advocacy for passage of Ballot Question B.

The union asked that the prosecutor’s investigation include all elected and nonelected officials who have authorized these political activities and expenditures, according to information from Lanny J. Davis’ firm Purple Nation Solutions.

Davis was hired to represent the FOP in its campaign.

The American Civil Liberties Union has also challenged the county’s campaign for Question B.

At issue are county ads urging votes “for” Question B on county buses, where other political advertising is not permitted.

“When the government privileges one side of a political debate in a forum open to private speakers, as Montgomery County is doing here, it engages in viewpoint discrimination clearly prohibited by the First Amendment,” ACLU of Maryland staff attorney David Rocah said according to a press release.

The ACLU alleges the county is unlawfully censoring ads opposing Question B.

The ACLU contacted Leggett asking him to resolve the issue, according to a release from the ACLU of Maryland.

According to the release, the FOP was twice told it was not allowed to purchase ad space on the buses because its ad was political in nature.

Leggett decided Monday to make a one-time exception to the county’s policy for ads on its RideOn buses, Lacefield said.

Under the policy, the only things allowed are commercial and government speech, he said.

“We don’t discriminate on viewpoint,” Lacefield said. “Outside groups, whether for or against something, do not get to purchase ads, but government does. It is a government facility.”

Montgomery County Council passed the effects bargaining bill in 2011 and the FOP collected nearly 40,000 signatures on a petition to put the bill up for a vote this November.

Montgomery County Democratic and Republic central committees both supported voting “yes” on question B; that is, affirming the council’s action repealing effects bargaining. However, the committees are divided on Question A. Democrats supported a “yes” vote while Republican urged a “no” vote.

kalexander@gazette.net