The Ethics Commission and Election Board in the town of Chevy Chase are investigating what role two Town Council members may have played in last month’s secretive write-in campaign that ousted a political opponent.
The two council members—Mayor Al Lang and Vice Mayor John Bickerman— have so far refused to answer a formal inquiry about what they knew and when they knew it about the write-in campaign for candidate Fred Cecere, who beat out incumbent council member Pat Burda on May 5.
Supporters of Cecere urged other supporters to keep Cecere’s candidacy a secret in what was thought to be an uncontested election. Many in the town didn’t know Cecere was mounting a serious write-in challenge until about an hour before polls closed.
“As a voter and a candidate, I have certain rights and I reject the argument that I have a fiduciary responsibility to answer those questions,” Bickerman told a reporter Wednesday after a four-hour council meeting that turned testy when the election issue came up.
Ethics Commission member Scott Fosler and Election Board Chairman Steve Lawton told Bickerman they asked about his knowledge of Cecere’s campaign because the town government put out a newsletter before the election announcing the two open seats would be uncontested with just incumbents Bickerman and Burda running.
“There was an election. The government told the people it was uncontested. As a consequence, very few people came to the polls,” said Fosler, pointing to a single-digit turnout rate as compared to contested races that have brought out as much as 43 percent of registered voters.
“At some point, it was clear a contestation took place. There was a candidacy for Dr. Cecere, so it was a contested election,” Fosler continued. “The question is: Who knew about it and if council members knew about that, did they have a responsibility to correct the record and let the electorate know that information was wrong?”
Lang was absent from the council meeting Wednesday. Bickerman said he had fallen ill.
Lang and Bickerman often differed on issues with Burda, who counted council members Vicky Taplin and Kathy Strom as allies.
The two factions on the five-member council clashed over much of the last year on spending measures, including the Burda-led initiative to hire a K Street lobbying firm to lobby against the light-rail Purple Line project.
While Bickerman and Lang are also opposed to the Purple Line, they didn’t agree with the process for finding the lobbyist and the roughly $500,000 the town spent on the contract.
With Burda out, the new council voted 3-2 last month to install Lang as mayor, Bickerman as vice mayor and Cecere as the town treasurer, the council’s top three positions.
Bickerman and Lang have previously denied they were involved with Cecere’s campaign, though Bickerman spoke for 20 minutes in support of Cecere at a May Ethics Commission hearing that cleared the way for the controversial election results to be confirmed.
In an email sent by Ed Albert, one of the residents who helped organize Cecere’s secret write-in campaign, he advised supporters to write Cecere’s name on the ballot and vote for Bickerman.
Lang received more criticism late last month when he replaced one of the Election Board members who agreed to hold off on certifying Cecere’s election win.
According to former Town of Chevy Chase council member David Lublin (who frequently sided with Burda and found himself at odds with Bickerman), Election Board member Anthula Gross “was subjected to very strong private pressure.”
The Election Board decided not to immediately certify the May 5 election results because of questions about whether Cecere was required to submit a financial disclosure statement as the announced candidates had done.
Cecere turned in his financial disclosure statement, allegedly with the help of Lang, about an hour before the polls closed. The Ethics Commission later decided by a 2-1 vote that Cecere wasn’t obligated to file the financial disclosure form before polls closed.
Gross wrote in an email shared with other town residents that “one present member of the Town Council also urged immediate certification and that we could be in violation of Federal Law (The Ku Klux Klan Act).”
The memo was circulated on the town’s unofficial listserv.
Lawton told the council Wednesday that Gross “got scared and resigned,” but quickly reconsidered. Lang had already chosen attorney Robert Charrow to replace her.
“Frankly, I can’t figure out why [Lang] was so hell-bent on getting this guy on the Election Board. It’s quite clear that this is the same person who wrote the Ku Klux Klan thing,” Lawton told the council. “And I point this out not just because it’s stupid, which it was, but I point it out because we are rapidly turning our town government into urban, mean politics.”
Bickerman interjected, saying Lawton had his facts wrong and Charrow didn’t write the so-called Ku Klux Klan memo that Gross referred to in her email.
When pressed during the council meeting and asked after the meeting by a reporter who did write it, Bickerman declined to answer.
When asked by a reporter if Lang himself wrote it, as some suspect, Bickerman said, “People shouldn’t make assumptions because people don’t want to answer questions.”
Lang, Taplin and Strom will be up for reelection next May.