Elections board deputy director avoids suspension or firing after releasing confidential memo

Montgomery County board orders more training for Russ Joseph

The Montgomery County Board of Elections on Tuesday ordered Deputy Director Russ Joseph to undergo public records training after he said he realized it was a mistake for him to release a confidential county prosecutor memo to the chairman of the county Democratic Party, who was challenging former Trotwood Mayor Mary McDonald’s Republican primary candidacy.

“I don’t consider anything you did a mistake. It was an effort that you made to benefit your side against me,” McDonald said to Joseph during the meeting after the vote. “I believe this individual should not be in office. He should not be holding the position he holds because he has broken the public trust.”

The Democrats’ protest against McDonald’s candidacy was unsuccessful and she is unopposed in the March 19 Republican primary race for Montgomery County Commission. Incumbent Commissioner Debbie Lieberman is unopposed in the Democratic primary so the two women are expected to face each other in November’s election.

The board also voted to put a “letter of counsel” in Joseph’s personnel file. Motions to suspend Joseph for 30 days or to issue a letter of reprimand failed after a split vote, with the board’s two Republicans voting to suspend or reprimand him and the two Democrats voting no.

Joseph, a Democrat, runs daily operations at the Board of Elections with Republican Director Jeff Rezabek.

Board member Barbara Gorman said she believes Joseph has learned his lesson and suspending him in the middle of the primary election when early voting is already underway would harm election operations.

“I made a mistake in releasing the prosecutor’s memo. It was not labeled as a privileged document. Nor did it cross my mind at the time that it might be,” said Joseph in a statement to the board on Tuesday prior to a closed-door executive session where the board discussed disciplining him.

Joseph said he realized his mistake when the memo came up during a Jan. 16 board hearing on the protest against McDonald. He said he immediately alerted board Chairwoman Rhine McLin and Gorman, both fellow Democrats, and the next morning told Rezabek that he had shared the memo.

The other two board members, Thomas Routsong and Erik Blaine, are Republicans.

Blaine questioned how Joseph, a former chief deputy clerk in Dayton Municipal Court who served brief appointed terms as county treasurer and county clerk of courts, could not have realized that the document was confidential. Blaine said releasing it was a “dischargeable offense.”

McDonald, who lost her bid for a third term as Trotwood mayor in the November election, was a longtime Democrat and elected member of the Montgomery County Democratic Party Central Committee when she announced on Nov. 27 that she intended to enter the Republican primary for Montgomery County Commission. McDonald sent a letter to the county Democratic Party in January resigning her party post, retroactive to Nov. 27.

The county elections board deadlocked along party lines on her candidacy in the GOP primary, but Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, issued a tie-breaking ruling in her favor on Jan. 27.

Prosecutor memo

On Tuesday the board voted to waive privilege on the confidential memo from the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s office and make it public. The memo contains a discussion of legal issues raised in the protest filed by Democratic Party Chairman Mohamed Al-Hamdani, and voter Brenda Blauser, who argued that McDonald did not file a declaration of intent to run as a Republican.

The prosecutor’s memo outlines the law, state directives and an Ohio Supreme Court case addressing a different case involving a change of party.

“While the statutes and Directives from the present Secretary of State would indicate that McDonald is eligible to be a candidate and can be placed on the ballot, the decision of the Ohio Supreme Court would stand for the proposition that McDonald is ineligible and could not be placed on the ballot,” the memo said in its conclusion.

At Tuesday’s meeting Ward Barrentine, assistant Montgomery County prosecutor and chief of the civil division, told the board that when his office is asked to render a legal opinion that opinion is attorney-client communication and emails containing such memos all have disclaimers across the bottom that the information is confidential.

“The communication we send is intended for the board,” Barrentine said.

On Tuesday the board directed his office in the future to clearly indicate if a document is not a public record. They also said an employee manual now being updated should include information on handling of public records, and that public records training should be made available to all employees.

The board’s internal investigation found that Joseph said he forwarded the memo from his county email to his private email and then sent it on Jan. 10 to Al-Hamdani.

He characterized that as the normal exchange of communication about board activities between him and the Democratic Party chairman.

Al-Hamdani forwarded it to Montgomery County Democrat Party attorney Dennis Lieberman, who is Debbie Lieberman’s husband. The document was then referenced in the protest hearing by Don McTigue, legal counsel for the protestors, according to the investigation.

Rezabek released the results of the board’s internal investigation and confidential memo in response records requests from the Dayton Daily News.

He said the board and its employees all strive to be transparent and to keep the public’s trust in the integrity of the elections system in Montgomery County.

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