When Leonard Roberto founded the organization Primary Challenge, he used to say the Erie County Board of Elections is “the front door to corruption.” Primary Challenge was supposed to assist in qualifying candidates of all political stripes to run in political party Primary Elections. Not a bad idea. Then Primary Challenge somehow morphed into the Tea Party and Roberto became a club house Republican. However, watching the Erie County Board of Elections does make one wonder whether it is not dominated by a culture of corruption. Let’s look at the evidence:
1) Dennis and Champ Don’t Live Here Anymore
By now most members of my fan club have seen this WIVB news report: Official votes where he doesn’t live
New York Election Law § 1-104 (22) defines “residence” to “mean that place where a person maintains a fixed, permanent and principal home and to which he, wherever temporarily located, always intends to return.” This definition is clearly intended to accommodate home district voting by individuals who are temporarily on assignment away from their permanent and principal home. Obvious examples are college students away at school, service personnel on duty overseas, or individuals whose jobs require a temporary relocation out of the area, such as insurance company employees acting to settle claims for property damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. Democratic Election Commissioner, Dennis Ward, lives with his wife in Kenmore, not where he’s registered in Amherst. This enables him to be a Democratic Party committee member in Amherst and retain control of the large Town of Amherst committee through his designated place keeper, Jerry Schad. His wife, Michelle Ianello, retains her residence in the Town of Tonawanda because it suits her political ambitions as a county legislator or state senator. Dennis admittedly lives with his wife in Tonawanda. The only way he intends to return to the house he owns and rents out in Amherst is if he intends to leave his wife. No one really knows where Deputy Election Commissioner, Arthur O. (Champ) Eve, Jr. lives, but many believe he actually resides in a housing complex purportedly designed for battered women on Dignity Circle off Humboldt Parkway. It’s clear that he doesn’t live with his dad on Jewett Avenue where he is registered. I live where I’m registered to vote. You probably do too. Why don’t the top two Democratic officials being paid handsomely to oversee fair, accurate and credible elections feel that they need to comply with simple rules the rest of us accept without question? Ward routinely invalidates petitions attempting to place candidates on the ballot for primary and general elections because signing voters or petition circulators don’t live at stated addresses. Why the incredible double standard for them and not for you and me?
2) Intentional Withholding of Data
The intentional withholding of voter registration information absolutely necessary to run for public or party office by Dennis Ward and his subordinates has been reported previously. Here.
This year for instance, Ward and friends gave Democratic County Committee members at least a five day head start in circulating designating petitions by delivering data to County Committee headquarters (HQ) which was being withheld from the public.
Similarly, the surreptitious nature of data transfers to Democratic Party Headquarters in the absence of Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests has been previously noted. See here, where it was documented that none of the FOIL requests for a six week period during which voter registration information was transferred to Democratic HQ had been requested via FOIL.
There is no reason for this behavior other than personal advantage for Commissioner Ward as he attempts to manipulate the political process to his own advantage and that of Democratic HQ loyalists.
3) Private work on the public dime
Commissioner Ward apparently conducts a vigorous private legal practice, with a concentration in Matrimonial law. For his $107,000 per year salary, the tax payers should expect to receive his full and undecided efforts on their behalf. However, on several occasions he has not been in his office until after 1:00 PM. A particularly troubling incident occurred on June 12, 2009. My friend David Pfaff was subpoenaed by Commissioners Mohr and Ward to give testimony regarding a political committee which he served as treasurer. The committee was allegedly control by G. Steven Pigeon, an arch enemy of Commissioner Ward. The time stated on the subpoena was 9:30 AM. Pfaff Subpoena 09-06-12 I might have represented Dave that day, but at that exact time and date I had a motion scheduled to be heard before Judge Donna Siwek in Supreme Court, across West Eagle Street from the Board of Elections. When I appeared in the good Judge’s courtroom, I was stunned to see Commissioner Ward arguing a matter involving a disputed matrimonial at the bench. The argument went on for some time and I stepped into the hallway to phone Pfaff. He told me that neither Commissioner was present and that Ralph Mohr was not expected to attend, as he was engaged in activities offsite regarding voting machines. No one at the Board of Elections knew where Ward was. I informed Mr. Pfaff of the Commissioner’s whereabouts and advised him to wait until 10 AM and leave. Commissioner Ward did not finish arguing his private case until well after ten o’clock. At the time of this event, attorneys Alan Bedenko, K. Michael Sawicki and David Laub were present in Judge Siwek’s courtroom and I discussed the Commissioner’s attendance to private legal work with each of them.
Investigations (and their attendant subpoenas) of any election matter are extremely rare in Erie County. I can only recall a handful in the past 30 years. It is really amazing that Commissioner Ward would choose to absent himself from a hearing at a return date and time which he himself scheduled. One can only speculate as to how often incidents of this variety occur at the Erie County Board of Elections, but it is stunning that Commissioner Ward would have the audacity to openly and publicly flaunt his private practice of law during regular business hours while conducting a high visibility investigation involving Board of Elections matters.
4) Flagrant and organic violations of the Open Meetings Law
I have been attending meetings at the Erie County Board of Elections for about 30 years. In that time I have never seen a posted notice of a public meeting. They have a fine big glass door to the street at 134 West Eagle. It would be a swell place to tape up meeting notices. I have never heard of any representative of the print or broadcast media being notified of a public meeting by the Board.
The Board of Elections is a “public body” under the New York Open Meetings Law (OML). The Board consists of two Commissioners and they must both agree in order to decide on anything, even the validity of a single voter signature. Tie votes mean no action is taken. Note the Pfaff subpoena needed two signatures. The Election Commissioners must operate like conjoined twins. They make many decisions during election season, and every last one of them requires an open meeting with timely notice to the public and the media. It’s not my idea. It’s written right there in the OML. And oh by the way, the Commissioners know about these Open Meetings Law requirements. Every year they attend an election commissioners training session and the section on the OML and FOIL is presented by Robert Freeman who happened to write both Laws. Bob Freeman has been the Executive Director of the Committee on Open Government since it was first created more than 30 years ago. His Committee has rendered thousands of opinions, formal and informal, on the OML and FOIL. He is a good teacher. I have discussed the difficulty of compliance with the OML for boards of election with Mr. Freeman. He informs me that there is no exception from compliance for lazy and inept election commissioners.
And just one more thing. The penalty for failure to comply with the OML is a judicial declaration of the invalidity of every decision made in violation of its requirements.
5) The Amazing Kreskin/Superman Incident
For a number of years former Board of Elections employees have informed me that political party business is done on public time, using public resources at the Board of Elections. This year a particularly flagrant incident demonstrated the arrogance which now accompanies this waste of tax payer assets. George Hasiotis filed a designating petition to put his name on the ballot in the Democratic Primary Election for County Comptroller. The process of objecting to such a petition for the purpose of denying such candidates a fair election involves filing general and specific objections. The latter must provide detail and specificity sufficient for the election commissioners to rule a petition invalid by virtue of errors made by the prospective candidate. As Hasiotis was opposing the Democratic Party candidate, such objections were to be expected. They are usually filed by a nondescript party loyalist known as an “Objector” who rarely knows anything about the procedure or process of objection in which they are engaged. This year a young lady named Caitlin E. ONeil was chosen as the Objector and objections were dutifully filed in her name. These Specific Objections were 114 pages long and exquisitely detailed. They contained a large number of sophisticated objections based on complex factual and legal arguments. Compiling these objections clearly took a great deal of time, effort and study of the Hasiotis petition.
Once the legal proceedings were commenced, Hasiotis retained attorney James Ostrowski to fight to keep George on the ballot. I suggested to Jim that he FOIL the records of who had actually examined the Hasiotis petition or requested a copy thereof. When he received the materials requested, a fascinating fact was revealed. No one but friends of George Hasiotis who were involved in his campaign had ever inspected his petition and no one ever requested a copy! FOIL of Hasiotis Petition Examiners Clearly this Caitlin E. ONeil possesses superhuman skills (like x-ray vision) or a psychic ability to review and study documents which she has never seen. I looked up her phone number, called her and left a message stating I was writing a story about her objections. She called me back but refused to answer questions when I began to question her about how much time she spent studying Hasiotis’ petition and propounding her objections. Clearly she never saw the Hasiotis petition. So how was this massive document prepared? Most likely by Board of Elections staff on your time using facilities you paid for. Got a better explanation, not involving intervention by visitors from outer space?
So you see there is more than a little rotten at the Erie County Board of Elections. These are just a few instances observed by private citizens going about their normal activities. Imagine what a real investigation would uncover. Did I mention election rigging? No let’s leave that for another time. See Max v. Ward