The man who ousted Town of Chevy Chase Vice Mayor Pat Burda last week with a secret write-in campaign didn’t violate the town’s ethics rules, a town commission ruled Monday.
The town’s three-person Ethics Commission decided by a 2-1 vote that Fred Cecere, whose write-in campaign garnered 49 more votes than Burda in the May 5 election, wasn’t obligated to file a financial disclosure form that the declared candidates were.
Burda, a longtime member of the town’s council who led some of its highest-profile initiatives, and fellow incumbent John Bickerman were thought to be uncontested.
But Cecere, urged on by a group of residents led by Ed Albert, decided to run the weekend before the election.
The 69-year-old doctor turned in a financial disclosure form at about 6:45 p.m. May 5, a little more than an hour before the polls closed.
“There very clearly was an effort to keep this write-in campaign a secret,” Ethics Commission member Scott Foster said. “The fact that a candidate decided to date his financial disclosure statement the day before the election, but then filed it on the day of the election at 6:45 p.m.—this is all very troubling.”
Nonetheless, Foster agreed with commission member Debra Soltis that Cecere wasn’t required to meet a deadline for filing the financial disclosure because he didn’t go through the official nominating process.
The town begrudgingly agreed to create the financial disclosure law a few years ago based on new ethics reporting requirements from the state.
Commission Chairman Barry Hager said the final financial disclosure deadline of April 30 did apply to Cecere, though it would be up to the Town Council to decide how to remedy the situation.
The write-in campaign and the decision last week by the town’s Election Board not to certify the results roiled many in the town of just more than 2,800 residents.
Burda, who pushed for the town to enter into a $29,000-a-month K Street lobbying contract to fight the light-rail Purple Line, was emblematic of the town’s overspending and overreach, according to Albert.
Albert confirmed he sent an email to a select group of recipients at 3:58 p.m. on election day urging them to write in Cecere’s name and vote for Bickerman. The email instructed supporters to share the message only with “those you feel 100% are like minded.”
It also advised that voting between 5 and 8 p.m. “is ideal for the element of surprise, but anytime is better than no vote.”
Burda said she wasn’t aware of the write-in campaign until about an hour before polls closed.
“I did not seek nomination. I was asked to run. That’s a very different thing. I didn’t campaign,” Cecere said. “I said, ‘I will happily let you use my name and after the election, I’ll get up in front of the Town Council, having 50 votes and being able to speak as the first write-in candidate to get 50 votes.’ …That’s all I thought I was doing.”
Cecere is expected to be officially installed on the council when it meets Wednesday.
Bickerman, a professional mediator who frequently clashed with Burda and others during council meetings, spoke for 20 minutes in front of the Ethics Commission in support of Cecere’s write-in campaign.
“I have to say, Pat, if this happened to me, I’d be mad as a red hen,” Bickerman said while directly addressing Burda. “It’s a really crummy thing because people didn’t know this was happening.”
“I totally understand and accept their decision,” Burda said after the commission’s ruling.
As for the future of two initiatives she led—the town’s Purple Line lobbying deal and its hopes for a 2.6-acre park on the town’s border—Burda said it’ll be up to the new council on how to proceed.
“I’m happy to sit down and bring everybody up to speed, but I’m just not sure that I should be the one,” Burda said. “I think it has to be at the council level.”