Mesneak, Hornberger Backer and Fired County Employee, Belatedly Agrees to Recuse Himself from Board of Elections Decisions on County Exec Race

May 27, 2020

Faced with a vote to force his recusal from any Cecil County Board of Elections decisions on the County Executive race, Scott Mesneak– a county employee fired by County Executive Alan McCarthy and a highly visible backer of his challenger Danielle Hornberger in the Republican primary election– belatedly agreed Tuesday (5/26/2020) to step aside, after initially refusing to recuse himself from Board decisions in the contest.

The in-person meeting of the county Board of Elections (BOE), which was also live streamed on the county website, took up Mesneak’s status as a special new agenda item on “conflict of interest,” following his appointment on 5/13/2020 to fill a GOP vacancy on the five-member bipartisan Board, which has a 3-2 Republican majority.

Questions of an appearance of a conflict of interest emerged because of Mesneak’s dismissal by McCarthy from a top county job as the IT director, after many complaints from County Council members, and Mesneak’s highly visible recent activities supporting Hornberger– including photos on her campaign social media pages posing with her while putting up signs for her campaign. Mesneak was recently picked for the Board of Elections post unilaterally by Vincent Sammons, the chairman of the county’s Republican Central Committee, without a vote by the full committee. {SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: [ ]

Impartiality and fairness are of heightened importance in this year’s primary election, since most ballots will be cast by mail, with election boards tasked with reviewing signatures on return envelopes and deciding whether mailed ballots comply with BOE rules. It is the first time that a statewide election has been held primarily by mailed ballots. The local board consists of three Republicans and two Democrats, with the GOP holding a majority of seats because Gov. Larry Hogan is a Republican.

At the Tuesday meeting of the local BOE, Mesneak, a Republican, said he had made small contributions to Hornberger’s political campaign and helped her erect campaign signs but was not an active member of her campaign leadership. He said that after he took his seat on the BOE a few weeks ago, he sent Hornberger a letter resigning from any role in her campaign.

Cameron Brown, the BOE’s lawyer, explained that it could be considered a conflict of interest violation for a member to have “provided support” to a candidate through contributions or “volunteering.” And even the appearance of a conflict of interest was problematic. “We all have certain protected rights,” he said. But by accepting a seat on the BOE, a member is also accepting “a voluntary abrogation of those rights.”

He said that Mesneak could resolve the matter by recusing himself from any role in review of ballots on the county executive’s race.

“I definitely do not want to do that,” Mesneak said.

Brown pointed out that any other member of the Board could make a motion to require a recusal and bring it to a vote. That’s exactly what board chair Kelly Sengstock, a Republican, did, saying it was crucial “to make sure the elections are above reproach” and that “I think Scott should probably recuse” himself from any board role in handling the county executive race on the ballots.

The motion was seconded by James Crouse, a Democrat and the vice-chairman. Another member, Nancy Simpers, said during the discussion that in her many years of service on the BOE it was always made clear to members that “if it looked like a problem you had to recuse yourself immediately.”

Brown explained that “he’s not going to be blackballed” if the motion passed, but just limited from any vote on matters involving decisions on ballot issues on the one race for county executive.

As a vote was about to be called, Mesneak suddenly blurted out that he was OK with recusing himself, the exact opposite of his statement just a few minutes before the vote. Everyone in the room was wearing masks, due to the COVID-19 virus health precautions, and some members apparently did not hear his second comment while others did.

So Brown interjected “Let’s hit the rewind button” and he walked Mesneak through the recusal questions again. This time, Mesneak replied “absolutely” when asked if he agreed to recuse himself from any questions or issues dealing with the county executive’s race on the ballots.

“You said I absolutely do not want to recuse“ when originally asked the question, Ruie Lavoie, the county supervisor of elections, said. Mesneak then said he misunderstood the question and thought he was being asked to resign entirely from the board.

With Mesneak’s change of heart, the motion to require a recusal was withdrawn and no vote held. Lavoie noted that Mesneak would not be required to step out of the room if a contested ballot is brought to the board for review but he would not be allowed to vote on any decision involving the marking of ballots in the executive contest.

But the board also deals with broader questions—such as challenging the signature on the back of a ballot envelope—that do not directly involve the county executive’s race but could lead to disqualification of an entire ballot. In a county as small as Cecil, especially in the current climate of raging social media comments on the elections, the signed name on the back of the ballot envelope can be an indicator of the voter’s candidate preferences.

The local BOE did not deal with broader questions, such as Mesneak’s view of his firing as the county’s IT director when McCarthy first took office, or the manner in which Mesneak was selected for the BOE seat. Mesneak was selected by Vincent Sammons, the chairman of the local Republican Central Committee, unilaterally, without a vote of the full committee as required by party rules.

Resolving the conflict of interest question at the local board no doubt prompted some sighs of relief in Annapolis, where the case had some state and GOP officials “sweating bullets,” as one knowledgeable state source put it. If the matter had not been resolved locally, it was poised to be kicked upstairs to the full state BOE, which receives broader state and media attention than a local board.

That could have raised questions about the thoroughness of a review of Mesneak’s appointment by the office of the Governor, who formally makes the appointment to the local BOE. However, Hogan had already turned over day to day duties of his office to Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford at the time of the local appointment as Hogan turned his full attention to dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.

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One Response to Mesneak, Hornberger Backer and Fired County Employee, Belatedly Agrees to Recuse Himself from Board of Elections Decisions on County Exec Race

  1. Ron Lobos on May 28, 2020 at 7:24 am

    I think that it is important that in the future, members of the Central Committee should be given at least 72 hours to read and digest any motions that require a vote from the committee. That 72 hour rule should include written statements. In addition, it should be required that all committee members have the opportunity to meet and question candidates to be chosen for positions. No candidate should be appointed without the opportunity for Committee Members to meet and question them. Without these two rules being followed, we have no need for a committee, just a ruler.

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