Acting on new information of possible election fraud, federal investigators have opened a preliminary inquiry into possible criminal misconduct during November's general election.
The information -- which sources say centers on activities at the Baltimore polls -- is an outgrowth of accusations made after the election by Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who lost to Parris N. Glendening by 5,993 votes.
Earlier information brought to investigators "neither contained the specificity nor the corroboration for us to go forward at that point," said Timothy McNally, special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore-Delaware office. "All I can say is, we have very specific allegations at this point."
Both Mr. McNally and U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia described the inquiry as a preliminary step to determine whether enough evidence exists to support an investigation. That decision is likely to be made in the next month, sources said.
"We're only involved in the investigation of whether there's any criminal conduct -- that's a heavy burden," Ms. Battaglia said. "It also requires a lot of factual data. There may be nothing there."
The scope of possible crimes is uncertain but could range from violations of the federal voting rights act to civil rights infractions.
At least part of the inquiry will look into security keys for some Baltimore voting machines that were not returned to election officials as required when the polls closed Nov. 8, according to one source. That breach left about a dozen of the city's nearly 1,200 machines vulnerable to tampering, according to an investigation by The Sun.
Efforts to reach Mrs. Sauerbrey for comment were unsuccessful last evening.
A spokesman for Mr. Glendening suggested that the issue has been settled.
"The election was Nov. 8 -- Governor Glendening won the election," said Charles F. "Chuck" Porcari, the spokesman. He declined to comment further.
Last month, the state election board asked lawmakers for up to $100,000 with which to hire a private investigator to look into irregularities during November's election. The funds have not been approved. On March 2, the group voted to refer the allegations to State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli. But Mr. Montanarelli said yesterday that he never received a request from the board. He would not say whether he was investigating the claims.
The allegations of election fraud surfaced almost immediately after Mr. Glendening's victory.
In a legal challenge to overturn the election, which a judge rejected in January, Mrs. Sauerbrey described irregularities including votes cast in the names of dead people and inmates, and some voters who had listed abandoned houses as their addresses.
Such votes tipped the election in Mr. Glendening's favor, she claimed.
Mrs. Sauerbrey filed a lawsuit in late December citing 51,000 questionable votes and asking a judge to overturn the election. The unprecedented court challenge to a Maryland gubernatorial election followed an intensive two-month investigation by hundreds of Sauerbrey supporters. Her accusations of voter fraud zeroed in on the three jurisdictions carried by Mr. Glendening -- Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. But when the case went to trial in January, Mrs. Sauerbrey's attorneys were able to call into question only about 3,600 votes.
Mrs. Sauerbrey originally claimed that more than 40,000 people who had cast ballots were named on a Postal Service database as filing change of address forms. But Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr. refused to allow that evidence, since the Sauerbrey camp had no witness to verify the list. Because of a missed deadline, the judge refused to fly in a last-minute witness from California.
Much of Mrs. Sauerbrey's other evidence crumbled under scrutiny.
She initially claimed that 4,700 inmates had votes cast in their names but could produce evidence of only 10. And the judge refused to allow even that, saying it was based on faulty information.
Other evidence that Mrs. Sauerbrey's people claimed to have never surfaced in the courtroom.
Her lawyers did not produce a list of people who had supposedly listed abandoned houses as their addresses, nor did they present an accountant who had found a 1,400-vote error in Baltimore, according to the lawsuit.
The court also never heard evidence of ballots cast in the names of dead voters. Mrs. Sauerbrey's lawyers said they found 89 such votes. Checking by reporters found no such balloting.
Her lawyers also lost a battle to introduce evidence they said would show that suspiciously large numbers of ballots were cast on some Baltimore voting machines.
Judge Thieme and the State Administrative Board of Election Laws called for an investigation into some of the problems highlighted during Mrs. Sauerbrey's challenge, such as a failure by Baltimore to purge thousands of ineligible voters from the rolls.
But the judge rejected her legal claims, and she chose not to appeal. Her supporters noted that legal costs could have reached $100,000 a week and cited concerns over her popularity, which had fallen sharply.