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Ohio Supreme Court Backs LaRose On Rejecting Lorain County Election Board Pick

Voters stand in line outside the Lorain County Board of Elections in 2020.
Jenny Hamel
Voters stand in line outside the Lorain County Board of Elections in 2020.

The Ohio Supreme Court on Monday ruled Secretary of State Frank LaRose was within his rights to block a Lorain County Democrat from serving on the board of elections.

Last month, LaRose rejected the county Democratic Party’s nomination of former Lorain County Commissioner Sharon Sweda, writing in a March 3 letter that she appeared to have conducted campaign business using her county email address.

The party challenged his decision, arguing that LaRose’s letter was based on allegations from Sweda’s political opponents. LaRose’s office disclosed in court it had received an anonymous, 258-page packet of Sweda’s emails in February.

In a 6-1 decision, the state supreme court sided with LaRose. Two of the court’s three Democrats voted with the majority.

The court held that LaRose acted within his discretion by considering both the packet and an OctoberElyria Chronicle-Telegramarticle in which Sweda said she inadvertently replied to campaign emails from her county address.

“The secretary is not required to accept her self-serving explanation for her actions,” the high court’s majority wrote.

The lone dissenter, Democratic Justice Michael Donnelly, wrote that LaRose had “no legitimate reason” to reject Sweda.  

“Today’s opinion upholds the secretary’s decision based on unadulterated rumor and suspicion,” Donnelly wrote. “And contrary to what is stated in today’s opinion, Sweda did not admit to intentional wrongdoing for any misuse of her county e-mail.”

Sweda, who lost her reelection bid last November, told ideastream Tuesday she was disappointed in the court’s decision. As for the campaign emails, she said she tried to answer messages quickly from her smartphone and mistakenly did not switch to a personal account.

“I responded, not realizing I was responding through my county email,” she said. “I should have directed them to my private email.”

The court did not address a second allegation in LaRose’s March 3 letter, that Sweda “may have directed subordinates to directly or indirectly campaign for her while on county time.”

In an affidavit filed with the court, Sweda denied directing employees to do campaign work. Two county port authority workers volunteered for her reelection bid last year, but did so of their own volition while on furlough, according to the affidavit.

“You can tell that much of this information was puffery and not even factual, and just a desperate attempt to again maybe hit me in the kneecap,” Sweda told ideastream.

In Sweda’s place, LaRose appointed Inez James, a Democratic former candidate for Lorain City Council and a toll plaza supervisor for the Ohio Turnpike. James was also the county Democratic Party’s choice to serve in lieu of Sweda.

The court has not yet ruled on a second, separate challenge to LaRose. That case was brought by the Summit County Republican Party after LaRose blocked the reappointment of the party’s chairman to the county’s board of elections.

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream.