Robert J. Antonetti Sr., the Howard County elections administrator who defied a state Court of Appeals order to pay an ethics fine incurred during his tenure in Prince George's County and sued the county election board last year for more pay, has settled the case and agreed to retire March 31 - four weeks after Maryland's presidential primary.
His departure will end a tumultuous 3 1/2 -year term marked by legal wrangling over his refusal to pay an ethics fine, the fatal heart attack of the county board chairman during a close 2002 vote recount, and the first use of the electronic voting technology that Antonetti publicly doubted could be ready on time. Now, less than a month before the primary March 2, he and board Chairman Guy Harriman say the machines will be ready and work properly.
"We're going to turn out a good primary election. Everything is fine. One of the best set-ups in the state," Antonetti said.
"I don't see it causing any problem," Harriman said about Antonetti's departure. "Mr. Antonetti has done his job well as election director."
The 67-year-old elections official said yesterday that he has ended his battles with the Howard board over his pay and with state ethics officials over a $7,500 fine stemming from an earlier case in Prince George's County.
Antonetti sounded jovial as he discussed his impending retirement.
"I feel fine. I'm going to Disney World," he said laughing, noting that his youngest son will graduate from college this spring and he is looking forward to becoming a grandfather for the first time.
Antonetti, who was selected by the local board in June 2000, was not welcomed by Democrats or Republicans because of the ethics violations.
The state Ethics Commission found he paid six relatives $14,000 for part-time elections board work in Prince George's County over six years during his 31-year career there. He had not disclosed their employment records and said he personally signed the pay stubs because he was the only official authorized to do so. He insisted he had done nothing wrong or unusual and refused to pay the fine even after Maryland's highest court ordered him to do so.
Yesterday, he said he has paid the fine, which Suzanne Fox, the state Ethics Commission's executive director, confirmed.
"We settled the dispute, I paid my fine and that's it," Antonetti said, referring to the ethics case. "I can't keep paying money out [in legal fees] forever. That's the way the state does things. They run you into the ground."
In 2002, with the legal battle continuing, County Executive James N. Robey and the Rev. Roland L. Howard Sr., then county elections board chairman, publicly said Antonetti was embarrassing Howard County.
Howard collapsed during a vote-counting session after the state primary election that year and died a few days later.
In June last year, Antonetti sued the Howard elections board, claiming he was promised a salary of $57,500, not the $43,992 state scale he was given upon starting work. He now earns $49,432.
Antonetti, Harriman and attorneys in the case would not reveal the exact terms of the settlement, which was reached Monday after a conference before Judge Howard Chasanow. Although the settlement is recorded in the court file, the papers had not been signed, Harriman said.
Harriman said Evelyn Purcell, Antonetti's deputy, will be interim director until the board selects a nonpartisan administrator.
Whoever is hired as the next elections administrator will be chosen "on the basis of the best qualified" and not political affiliation, said Harriman, a Republican.
"This is a straight, nonpartisan government job. It is a state position," he said.
Of his second retirement, Antonetti quipped, "I'm just like those football players, like Michael Jordan. I've had some very good experiences here."