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Published: Tuesday, 4/2/2002

Challenger says Blackwell let election office woes slide

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

Bryan Flannery, the Democratic candidate for Ohio secretary of state, charged yesterday that his opponent has ignored festering problems at the Lucas County Board of Elections when he should have intervened to safeguard the integrity of the local voting process.

A spokesman for incumbent Republican Kenneth Blackwell, the chief elections officer in the state, dismissed the Flannery charges, saying that they have no merit and that Mr. Blackwell is moving to address trouble in the office.

At issue is Mr. Blackwell's handling of a string of problems that have cropped up in the county elections office since Sept. 11. Leaders in the office told two television stations midway through the primary election that day that the voting would be halted because of terror attacks in New York and Washington.

The decision was announced without approval by the county elections governing board and was quickly reversed. However, broadcast announcements of the election cancellation threw the balloting into a temporary chaos.

Several other problems have cropped up since, triggering two investigations by the office of Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates. The results of those investigations have not been made public.

Mr. Blackwell announced Thursday that he would initiate a third official probe into the management of the office, saying, “The recent events at the Lucas County Board of Elections have caused me great concern.

“Much has been documented in the local media, as well as in communication to my office, regarding problems in the operation of the board,” he said in a letter to board Director Antoinette Szuch. Top assistants will be sent from Columbus to conduct the investigation.

“How many more investigations do we need?” Mr. Flannery asked during a news conference at the elections board office yesterday.

The job of Ms. Szuch, a Republican, is on the line. In their meeting last month, the four members of the board that oversees the elections office dead-locked in their vote over who should manage it. The two Republicans on the board said Ms. Szuch should continue in the post, and the two Democrats voted for Deputy Director Larry Loutzenhiser, a Democrat.

Under state law, Mr. Blackwell is responsible for breaking all tie votes cast by county boards of elections. “I need to collect additional information [about the board] before I can make a fully informed decision on this important matter,” he said last week.

Ms. Szuch is paid $73,855.60 a year. In a meeting yesterday with reporters in the lobby of the elections office, Mr. Flannery called for her and Mr. Loutzenhiser to resign immediately. Ms. Szuch remained in her office during the news conference and declined to speak with reporters.

Carlo Loparo, spokesman for Mr. Blackwell, said his boss is “not looking for an election year lynching” of Ms. Szuch just to score points for his re-election campaign. He said Mr. Blackwell “intends to pursue a thorough and comprehensive investigation of all aspects of the board” and would not hesitate to remove Ms. Szuch from her post if he deems her unfit to continue.

After two similar investigations in Miami and Cuyahoga counties, Mr. Blackwell removed the election office directors.

“He has removed Republicans as well as Democrats from leadership positions, and he is prepared to make the tough decision in this case,” Mr. Loparo said.



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