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Judge Rules Smigiel Off the Hook to Pay Taxpayers’ $40K Legal Bill for his Lawsuit Against Cecil County

February 5, 2014
By Nancy Schwerzler

You know it’s going to be an interesting, or circuitous, argument when a legal or political document begins with an 1835 quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville, that astute observer of early America. A Circuit Court judge recently struck both legal and political notes in ruling that Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36) should not be required to pay nearly $40,000 in county legal fees for his losing lawsuit challenging Tari Moore’s change in political party registration.

“There is hardly a political question in the United States which doesn’t sooner or later turn into a judicial one,” visiting Judge Thomas E. Marshall wrote, beginning his opinion with the quotation from de Tocqueville.

And the judge cited lots of local politics before concluding that Smigiel’s handling of his lawsuit didn’t rise to the level of “bad faith” that would meet stringent state legal standards for “sanctions” that would have required him to compensate the county government for legal fees it had to pay to defend itself against Smigiel’s lawsuit.

“The original complaint contained allegations of political chicanery,” the judge observed. And Smigiel’s named client in the case, Chris Zeauskas, chair of the county’s Republican Central Committee, was “not amused by Mrs. Moore’s political maneuver.” (The GOP committee is dominated by members of a political slate assembled by the old ‘Smipkin’ political machine created by Smigiel and former Sen. E.J. Pipkin.)

Shortly before being sworn in as Cecil County’s first County Executive under Charter government in December, 2012, Moore switched her political party registration from Republican to “unafilliated,” with the result that the County Council was empowered under the Charter to pick anyone it wanted as her successor for the District 2 Council seat she vacated to assume her new position. Had she remained a Republican, the GOP Central Committee would have had the power to pick a list of three names to which the Council would be limited in making a choice.

As it turned out, the Council deadlocked even on how to proceed to consider a replacement, so under the Charter, Moore got to pick her own replacement: Republican Joyce Bowlsbey. (Most likely, even if Moore had remained a Republican, the bitter 2-2- deadlock on the Council at the time probably would have persisted even if the GOP committee had been able to submit its list of names.)

The judge previously dismissed Smigiel’s lawsuit, saying there was “no support whatsoever” in the law for his contentions and attempt to prevent Bowlsbey from taking her Council seat. The judge also held that Zeauskas had no “standing” to sue since he could not prove any personal harm and noted that Smigiel hadn’t bothered to respond to the county’s legal briefs in the case despite being given an extended period of time to do so.

[SEE Cecil Times report on judge’s previous dismissal of Smigiel’s lawsuit here:
http://ceciltimes.com/2013/10/cecil-county-execs-unaffiliated-party-move-appointment-of-bowlsbey-to-council-upheld-by-judge-smigiel-suit-dismissed/

Then County Attorney Jason Allison filed a motion in the case asking the court to impose sanctions on Smigiel and require him to pay the county’s legal costs because he should have known his case was “patently groundless” and his failure to respond to legal motions in the case amounted to “bad faith.”

But in a ruling filed two weeks ago, the judge held that Smigiel’s actions did not breach a strict “two step” process required to impose sanctions. First, the case was not inherently “without substantial justification in law or in fact merely because it did not survive a motion to dismiss,” the judge wrote. And Smigiel’s failure to pursue his case “in and by itself does not mandate a finding of bad faith.”

The award of legal fees to the prevailing party—the county—“is an extraordinary remedy which should only be exercised in the rare and exceptional case,” the judge said, adding that there was no factual proof that his actions amounted to bad faith.

Since there was no “evidentiary hearing” in the case—Smigiel had demanded a postponement of a hearing under a state law allowing delays for members of the General Assembly while the legislative body is in session—the judge said the allegations on both sides in their legal filings were “mere unsupported, bald allegations.”

Despite the baldness of the allegations, the judge added that it could be an “inescapable conclusion that Mrs. Moore circumvented the intent of the provisions of the newly enacted Cecil County charter which provided for Central Committee participation in filling County Council vacancies.”

And it was also “obvious” that Smigiel’s suit was filed to “thwart the perceived deception by Mrs. Moore and had a legitimate basis at least in fact.” But his lethargy in following up the case did not amount to “egregious behavior” that would warrant a “bad faith” finding and financial sanctions, the judge added.

Commenting on the latest ruling in the case, Allison told Cecil Times that the original suit was dismissed for “failure to state a claim” that met legal requirements. The lawyer and his client “should have presented facts to support” their claim but never did so, he added.

Shortly after the judge dismissed Smigiel’s original lawsuit, Moore re-affiliated with the Republican party on county election rolls.

Now that Smigiel is off the hook to pay the county’s legal expenses, which included hiring an outside lawyer from Baltimore County specializing in cases against local governments, perhaps he’ll have some spare cash to pay his mounting fines for failure to comply with state election laws requiring him to file campaign finance reports in a timely manner.

So far, he has failed to file the required annual report that was due on 1/15/14, and the state Board of Elections has already assessed him with fines of $140, which could rise to a maximum of $250 if he continues to decline to file his report.

In addition, Smigiel still has an unpaid balance of another $230 in fines for his belated filing of a required finance report after his losing bid for a Circuit Court judgeship in the 2012 elections.

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8 Responses to Judge Rules Smigiel Off the Hook to Pay Taxpayers’ $40K Legal Bill for his Lawsuit Against Cecil County

  1. Mike Reed on February 5, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    Smigiel is a loser, no matter how anyone looks at his shananigans. Truly, this is like the pot calling the kettle black. Hope he gets defeated for any seat he runs for. He just loves this kind of publicity. I’ve decided that it really pleases him to be in the limelight, good or bad. That’s how he gets his jollies. Too bad that the taxpayers have to pay the cost for his self-gratification.

  2. Joe C on February 5, 2014 at 9:15 pm

    Tari Moore should pay the taxpayers back, it was her self centered action and her action alone that put this incident into motion. She knew what the political landscape was when he chose to enter the executive race, nothing changed from her filing date to election day. Then so she could hand pick her own replacement she pulled a maneuver of betrayal on all Republicans that supported her, especially the ones that donated to Republican causes. She was the beneficiary of $40,000 dollars in donation channeled from the State GOP and also had local support from the Republican Central Committee that run ads and made phone calls in support her. So what did she do, she turned her back on the supporters so she could take care of other vested interests trying to gain control over every aspect of county government. This was shameful anyway you cut it.

    • Ron Lobos on February 9, 2014 at 8:02 am

      Joe, just thought I’d let you know. I gave Smigiel some constructive criticism about this ruling on facebook. He promptly removed me from his list. How does a man learn if he can’t listen. Some would call this arrogance.

      • RED 833 on February 10, 2014 at 12:24 pm

        Welcome to Smipkin Island.

      • Joe C on February 11, 2014 at 9:07 pm

        Ron,
        I hope you offer Tari Constructive criticism also on Facebook! It is all about free speech, to bad CBL leaders want to control or limit it!

        • Ron Lobos on February 13, 2014 at 5:01 am

          You’re changing the subject, Joe. This is about Smigiel; however I will reply candidly. I share my constructive criticisms with Tari in person or at commissioner and town hall meetings because she makes it possible for me to do so. Because of that, I don’t need to question her on Facebook. I can barely remember Smigiel attending anything public in this county where he put himself in a position to take questions or be challenged on his points.

          • Joe C on February 14, 2014 at 6:14 am

            Ron,
            Bottom Line up Front(BLUF): Smigiel was right and won this case and Tari lost and wasted yet more taxpayer money!

    • RED 833 on February 14, 2014 at 10:18 am

      Since Moore was sued as County Executive the county was obligated to defend her. A reading of the charter clearly shows that she was within the charter in her actions. Smigiel paid just a $145 filing fee to hurt Moore politically. He should be embarrassed by the judge’s criticism of his handling of the case. Why waste time on a case you can’t win?

      Moore’s temporary party change prevented the Smigiel-Pipkin puppet Central Committee from submitting the names of three Smipkins for replacement, which would have guaranteed two more years of Smipkin-controlled county government.

      I would like to see the facts regarding the $40,000 allegedly spent by the State GOP. Show me the money. And all that is beside the point since we have a Republican County Executive.

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