Ruth Elliott, an incumbent Aberdeen City Councilwoman and former mayor, may have participated in election fraud this March when she allegedly had members of the city’s Board of Elections sign and back-date the official results of a special election held months prior.
Such election fraud, according to the city charter, is considered a misdemeanor and, if prosecuted and found guilty of such an offense, Elliott would have to resign from office immediately upon conviction.
The disturbing details came out recently during depositions and testimony in the lawsuit filed against the City of Aberdeen by a group of annexation opponents.
Even more staggering than the revelation itself are its origins and implications.
On Dec. 5, 2006, Aberdeen held a referendum vote on the proposed annexation of the Wetlands Golf Course and surrounding properties. In the city-wide special election, 1,352 voters were against the annexation and only 752 were for the proposal.
It was a joyous time for the so-called ‘red-shirts’ – members of the Say No Annex group, who had fought the annexation for about a year, gathered thousands of signatures on petitions to bring the matter to referendum and help beat down the proposal by a convincing, nearly 2-to-1 margin.
In the days before the special election, word leaked out about a second Wetlands annexation plan, one which would do away with the golf course entirely in exchange for more housing units. Opponents of the annexation criticized the ‘leak’ as nothing more than an 11th-hour tactic aimed at scaring the public into voting for the first, less intensely developed plan, which would retain the golf course.
Nevertheless, the public spoke and the city council’s approval of the Wetland’s annexation was overturned and voided.
It is important to note Elliott initially voted for the Wetlands annexation, but quickly changed her mind and vote and aligned herself completely with the annexation opposition group.
With the annexation defeated, the city was under pressure to take a look at its entire annexation application and review process and ended up initiating in January 2007 a moratorium on any new annexation requests.
Hoping to drive a stake through the heart of any future Wetlands annexation attempts, the opposition group filed a lawsuit against Aberdeen in April alleging the city violated the will of the voters by accepting a second Wetlands annexation proposal.
The hearings began in earnest this fall in the Harford County Circuit Court. Days of testimony from members of the opposition group and city officials alike followed. Participants and attendees have included Mayor S. Fred Simmons, councilman David Yensan, city manager Doug Miller, members of the annexation opposition group and attorneys for the city, the opposition group and Wetlands Aberdeen LLC.
Part of the evidence introduced by the opposition group was a series of emails back and forth between group members and Elliott. One such email details how opposition group member Bob Price filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the official results of the Dec. 5, 2006 special election. When Price presented the results to opposition group attorney J. Carroll Holzer, Holzer pointed out the document couldn’t be introduced as a formal exhibit because it was not signed.
That sent the opposition group back to city hall, via Elliott, to get the validated and Board of Election member-signed results. The problem was no such document existed.
That’s right, while the unofficial, handwritten results from the night of the special election were signed, no one remembered or bothered to validate or sign the official special election results.
When the opposition group mulled the disconcerting revelation, Elliott had an easy solution – she’d simply take the official special election results around to each of the city Board of Elections members and have them sign and back-date the document. Simple, indeed, but also misdemeanor election fraud.
Nonetheless, that’s apparently what Elliott did – hand-carrying the official special election results in early March to Mary Law, Carolyn Cook and Irvin Michelson, who each signed and post-dated the document.
What was originally intended to be the opposition group’s lawsuit against Aberdeen soon turned into a case of potential election fraud.
At least two of the exhibits entered into evidence in the case seem to confirm Elliott’s actions:
– in a March 11 email to Elliott, opposition group member Bobbie Randles thanks the councilwoman for “…helping with the signatures on the Election Results…”
– in an April 5 email to Elliott, Randles again thanks the councilwoman and, in referring to the impending lawsuit against, points out that for her efforts Elliott’s name was “intentionally left off” the lawsuit.
The most damning evidence may come straight from Elliott’s own testimony under oath.
“As I recall, you know, because I went around and got Carolyn Cook’s, and the – let’s see, who else? Mary Law and Mr. Michelson’s signature personally,” Elliott said during her September 24 deposition.
The line of questioning is shown in transcripts of Elliott’s testimony – in which the questioners “Q” are Wetlands Aberdeen LLC attorney Curtis Coon and city attorney Elwood Stark and the answerer “A” is Elliott.
At another point in her testimony, Elliott is grilled about why the special election results, now admittedly signed in early March, don’t bear an early March date and instead carry the date of Dec. 8.
“Well, now if they were signed in your presence in March, wouldn’t you agree it would be unusual to take a document, sign it in March and date it back to December?” Coon asked.
“Did you have any discussion with any of the three individuals about the date that they were appending to their signature on the certification results of the referendum election?” Coon continued.
“I don’t recall. They just signed it the date of the election. I didn’t tell them when to sign it,” Elliott responded.
Coon then reminded Elliott the referendum election was held Dec. 5 and not Dec. 8.
Elliott also pointed out during her testimony that city manager Miller or former city clerk Darlene Ostroski may have known about the missing signatures and the councilwoman’s intent to go out and get the Board of Elections members to sign and certify the document months after the fact.
These revelations come out now, two weeks before the city election, not as a late campaign ploy, but because the implicated members of the city’s Board of Elections were only recently subpoenaed. So what does this all mean? Did Elliott act out of naivety or as a political move to ensure she wouldn’t be named in the lawsuit? Even more disquieting, does this mean the results of the Dec. 5 special election on the Wetlands annexation are appealable as they were never officially certified until three months after the vote – and even then were certified only through an act of apparent election fraud?
Could there be a ‘special’ special election to confirm and this time adequately, accurately and legally certify the results?
What does this do to the opposition group’s case against the city?
What does this do to the opposition group itself – whose stated purpose has been to clear the city council dais of all incumbents except for Elliott? Now it appears they may have succeeded in doing the exact opposite – effectively ending Elliott’s council career as an unintended consequence of filing what many believe is a frivolous lawsuit against the city.
Worse than shooting themselves in the foot, they may have cut off their own head.
It remains to be seen if Harford County State’s Attorney Joe Cassilly, who was only advised of the situation late last week, will pursue the investigation and prosecution of Elliott, but given the circumstances and admitted testimony, there may be some requirement to do so.
And what of the Nov. 6 municipal election in which Elliott is running to retain her council seat? Will these allegations be enough to keep voters from re-electing her or will the Aberdeen citizenry see Elliott’s efforts as noble of heart and welcome her back with a torrent of votes?
And if Elliott is re-elected and subsequently forced to resign in the face of election fraud charges, who might the remaining members of the city council nominate to her seat?