Asti flyer violated campaign conduct standard, panel finds

Alison L. Asti’s yellow-and-black Election Day flier was “likely to mislead” Anne Arundel County voters and therefore violated a standard of conduct that calls for “truthfulness and dignity” in judicial campaigns, an oversight panel said in an opinion released Thursday.

However, the Maryland Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee said the Asti campaign’s $150-a-ticket fundraiser following her election to Anne Arundel County Circuit Court passed muster “on the face of it.”

The committee, which has no authority to censure violators, noted that fundraising by judicial candidates is legal in Maryland and that Asti’s fundraiser was held before she took office.

While any contribution to a judicial candidate has the potential of raising questions about the candidate’s impartiality in a given case, the committee said, those questions are best resolved by the litigants.

Same colors

The Election Day flier “conveyed …to the casual, or even careful, reader” that Asti was running on a slate with sitting Judge Laura S. Kiessling, the committee wrote.

Kiessling, however, was running with fellow Judge Ronald H. Jarashow in a three-way race for two seats on the court. Jarashow lost, finishing third with 26.7 percent of the vote. Asti came in second with 33.8 percent, while Kiessling got 39.2 percent.

During their joint campaign, Kiessling and Jarashow had distributed fliers with the photographs in a “distinctive” yellow and black color scheme. Asti’s flier was similarly yellow and black, but instead of Jarashow, she was pictured with Kiessling. The lettering and logo of the two fliers also were different, Asti said.

Asti did not return telephone messages seeking comment on the decision Thursday. Asked about the fliers in November, Asti said her intent was to endorse Kiessling, not to imply that Kiessling was endorsing her.

The committee, in its 11-page opinion dated Jan. 12, expressed concern with the timing of Asti’s fliers.

“The fliers appear to have been distributed only on Election Day, at a time and under circumstances that did not allow voters to seek or obtain clarification regarding the representations contained in the flier or for Judge Kiessling to either repudiate or adopt the flier,” the panel stated.

James B. Astrachan, who represented Asti in the committee’s proceedings, strongly objected to the finding that the flier was likely to mislead. The panel did not interview any voters, he noted.

“Without any proof whatsoever, they came to the conclusion that there’s an association” between the two sets of fliers, Astrachan said. “It’s so amazingly subjective.”

The 16-member conduct committee seeks to provide guidance to judicial candidates in the proper conduct of their campaigns. Despite its limited authority, the panel’s finding that she violated rules of truthfulness and dignity is “hurtful” to Asti, Astrachan said.

“They don’t have the power to punish people, but they have the power to influence perceptions,” added Astrachan, who focuses on intellectual property issues at Astrachan Gunst Thomas Rubin PC in Baltimore.

Astrachan chairs The Daily Record’s independent Editorial Advisory Board. Asti stepped down from that role when she declared her candidacy, and resigned from the board once she was elected.

The judicial campaign in Anne Arundel County was among the most bitter in Maryland last year.

A political action committee supporting Kiessling and Jarashow — Citizens for the Election of Qualified Judges — distributed fliers alleging Asti had “been taking advantage of Maryland taxpayers for over 15 years” while she served as general counsel and executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Had a judge made that allegation, it likely would have violated conduct standards, the committee stated.

Astrachan said a strong argument could be made that Kiessling and Jarashow violated standards of conduct by not disavowing the PAC’s flier, which was distributed on their behalf but without their knowledge. Asti, however, did not lodge a complaint with the conduct committee.

“Alison did not think it was dignified to file a complaint against these judges,” Astrachan said.

The committee concluded the invitations Asti sent for her “Victory Celebration” in December did not violate the standard of campaign conduct governing “financial contributions.”

The determination of whether Asti’s fundraising activity “undercuts the dignity or impartiality” of the judiciary should be made not by the conduct panel but in the courtroom, the committee said.

“Fundraising by judicial candidates is lawful in Maryland,” the panel said. “Even absent exceptional circumstances, donations to a judge’s campaign may among other things, raise the appearance of impropriety, create or heighten the risk of bias, and lead to recusals or the filing of motions seeking recusal, all of which present challenges to the administration of justice,” the committee stated. “Nevertheless, those will be matters for Ms. Asti, the court, litigants and parties to manage in the future, as they are for all other judicial campaign fundraisers.”

The committee’s investigation and opinion were in response to a complaint lodged by Ann LoLordo, a registered Anne Arundel County voter and formerly an editor at The Baltimore Sun.

LoLordo, in a Nov. 23 e-mail to the committee, called Asti’s flier “a deliberate and slick attempt to dupe voters into believing she was one of the two sitting judges who were running as a team.”

Of the committee’s decision, LoLordo said, “I am very happy that they took my complaint seriously.”

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