Court

Court

ELKTON — A former Cecil County Elections Board deputy director accused of backdating a mandatory campaign financial disclosure form submitted by then-candidate Danielle Hornberger, who was running for county executive, received probation before judgment Thursday after accepting a plea deal.

The intentional tampering by the defendant — Lora Walters, 57, of North East — called into question the validity of Hornberger’s candidacy and, moreover, her victory over incumbent Alan J. McCarthy in the June 2020 Republican primary, which led to her winning the county executive post in the November 2020 election.

During the courtroom hearing on Thursday, the defense maintained that Walters had acted covertly and independently to conceal a mistake she had made while handling the original form that had been submitted by Hornberger.

Walters pleaded guilty to misconduct in office, which is a common law offense that allows a judge to impose any sentence he or she believes is appropriate as long as it would not be deemed a “cruel and unusual” punishment.

Moments after accepting her guilty plea, Cecil County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Keith A. Baynes granted Walters probation before judgment, a sentence that had been requested by Walter’s defense lawyer, C. Thomas Brown.

Baynes then ordered Walters to serve three years of supervised probation and to pay court costs by the end of August.

Sr. Assistant State Prosecutor Lindsay E. Bird had recommended that Walters receive a suspended one-year sentence, in addition to serving three years of supervised probation.

If Walters violates her supervised probation, the judge could impose any sentence that he deems appropriate. A conviction does not appear on the record of a defendant who has been granted probation before judgment.

As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors dismissed these four related charges that also were filed against Walters in early June: perjury, false entry in a public record, altering a public record and corrupt or fraudulent acts in the performance of official duties.

A 1982 Perryville High School graduate who had worked as a Cecil County Board of Elections employee since 2002, Walters was dismissed from her job after her intentional mishandling of Hornberger’s financial disclosure papers was discovered.

Brown told the judge that Walters made an honest mistake when she certified Hornberger’s form and forwarded it to the next step in the process — despite it lacking mandatory financial disclosure. After her error was discovered, Walters then took a few secret and unilateral steps to cover up her mistake, Brown explained.

“The coverup, if you will, was much worse than the thing that started it,” Brown told Baynes after remarking, “This case started out with a mistake and after that, it snowballed.”

After reporting that his client has an otherwise clean record, Brown emphasized that Walters’ misconduct to conceal her processing mistake was “out of character” for her and asserted that she had been a “good employee” for 17 years.

In addition to losing her job over the matter, Walters is no longer eligible to collect a full pension as a former county employee, Brown said.

Standing beside Brown at the defense table, Walters told the judge, “I apologize for the things that happened. I’m very remorseful. I apologize to the staff.”

Reading a victim-impact statement aloud in the courtroom moments before sentencing, Kelly M. Sengstock, president of the Cecil County Board of Elections, opined that Walters committed “devious acts” and maintained that her misconduct “cast a black cloud over the Election Board.”

Sengstock reported that officials and employees are still working to “restore voters’ faith in the election process.”

Before sentencing Walters, the judge remarked from the bench, “This is all about the betrayal of the trust of (citizens) . . . You were covering up a mistake. We need the highest level of integrity when it comes to elections.”

After learning about Walters’ then-alleged mishandling of Hornberger’s campaign form, McCarthy filed a lawsuit contesting the validity of Hornberger’s candidacy. McCarthy had lost his bid for a second four-term as county executive to Hornberger in that June 2020 Republican primary.

Visiting Retired Queen Anne’s County Circuit Court Judge Thomas G. Ross ruled against McCarthy, after an August 2020 civil trial in which Hornberger, Walters and McCarthy were among the witnesses who testified.

Ross’ decision against McCarthy was not based on the merits of the case but, rather, on a technicality. The judge concluded that, contrary to the requirement, McCarthy did not file the lawsuit suit within seven days after the results of the certification of the June 2020 primary election. McCarthy had sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctions.

In one section of his written opinion, Ross concluded that Walters had acted alone and that, moreover, Hornberger had no knowledge that Walters had altered and backdated her campaign financial disclosure form.

“It is not McCarthy’s position that Hornberger and Walters knew one another or engaged in a conspiracy to undermine election laws. The actions or inactions of Walters on behalf of CBOE (Cecil Board of Elections) were her own as were her motivations,” Ross wrote.

Testifying during the August 2020 civil trial, Walters denied altering Hornberger’s candidate financial disclosure form by whiting out the July 7, 2020 stamp date and backdating it to Nov. 5, 2019 and also by forging the signature of Hornberger’s treasurer.

“I was accused of that, but I didn’t do it,” Walters testified back then, before commenting, “Maybe they should do an investigation on everyone else in the office.”

Also during her testimony in that civil hearing, Walters noted that she had been a county employee for 25 years, 18 of which with the election board, and then asked, “Why would I jeopardize 25 years for Danielle Hornberger, who I don’t even know?”

Based on the statement of facts presented by state prosecutors on Thursday, during Walters’ plea/sentence hearing, the form submitted by Walters on July 7, 2020 and backdated to Nov. 5, 2019 raised red flags.

“Importantly, the form that Walters filed with the Department of Human Resources could not have been signed or stamped into the Board of Elections on November 5, 2019 because the form was not in existence at that time. The Cecil County Ethics Commission approved changes to the Financial Disclosure form on November 18, 2019, and the form was not publicly available in the relevant format until January 2020,” reads a portion of the state’s statement of facts against Walters.

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