Judge Grants New Trials in Recount-Rigging Case

CLEVELAND (AP) - A judge on Monday granted new trials to two former Cuyahoga County elections workers convicted of rigging a recount during the 2004 presidential election to avoid a more thorough review of the votes.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold said the judge who presided over the case had a conflict of interest, since the lawyer who argued a motion during the election workers' trial on behalf of Prosecutor Bill Mason also had represented the judge in two other cases.

Elections workers Jacqueline Maiden, Kathleen Dreamer and Rosie Grier were tried together in January. Grier was acquitted, but Maiden, 60, and Dreamer, 40, were convicted and given the maximum sentence of 18 months in prison by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Peter Corrigan.

The women have been free on bond while they make their appeals.

In her decision Monday, Saffold cited Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer's May ruling that disqualified Corrigan from hearing requests from the two workers for new trials because his relationship with assistant county prosecutor Charles Hannan Jr. posed "an appearance of impropriety."

Corrigan has said his relationship with Hannan was not a conflict of interest.

Maiden and Dreamer were extremely relieved when Saffold made the ruling Monday morning, said Roger Synenberg, Dreamer's lawyer.

"We don't think they did anything wrong," Synenberg said. "But even if they are reconvicted, that would give them the opportunity to be resentenced."

Saffold scheduled the new trials for Aug. 28.

Maiden, the elections board's third-highest ranking employee, was the county elections board coordinator, and Dreamer was an assistant manager of the board's ballot department.

Each were convicted of a felony count of negligent misconduct of an elections employee and a misdemeanor count of failure of elections employees to perform their duty. Both were acquitted of five other charges.

Special prosecutor Kevin Baxter, who was brought in from Erie County to handle the case, did not claim the workers' actions affected the outcome of the election - Democratic Sen. John Kerry Kerry gained 17 votes and President Bush lost six in the county's recount.

But Baxter insisted the employees broke the law when they worked behind closed doors three days before the public Dec. 16, 2004, recount to pick ballots they knew would not cause discrepancies when checked by hand so they could avoid a lengthier, more expensive hand recount of all votes.

Baxter said Monday that for retrials to be granted under the law, witnesses who didn't testify at the original trial must be able to provide new evidence that would likely bring a different outcome.

"I still can't figure out what new evidence the judge was talking about," he said after the ruling. "But she's the judge and she makes the decisions."

Since 2004, Cuyahoga County's elections board has faced criticism for shoddy work, including absent, late or improperly trained poll workers and a hand count of 18,000 absentee ballots that delayed the May 2006 primary results for days.

In recent months, the board has welcomed a new executive director and four new board members to replace those who resigned under pressure from Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner