March 10, 2003
A stench grows in Brooklyn
Sad news for John K. O'Hara. On Friday, Federal Judge John Gleeson rejected his habeus corpus petition to overturn his conviction for five counts of felony voting fraud. Alert readers will recall that we wrote about this grossly political miscarriage of justice back in December. Score another victory for Brooklyn DA Charles J. Hynes and the Brooklyn Democratic machine.
Go read Carla T. Main's excellent column in today's NYP for the details on Friday's decision. She is recommending that Mayor Bloomberg appoint a commission to investigate the way that elections are run in Kings County. This is a great idea. But a commission won't help John O'Hara (a lawyer who was automatically disbarred as a result of his felony conviction) get his life back.
Like most legal lynch jobs, this is a complex and tangled story.
To get a better idea of the type of legal shenanigans that characterize voting in Brooklyn, read this 2001 article by Kimberly Strobl for the Gotham Gazette:
Few New Yorkers might realize there is even a race for the Democratic nomination for Brooklyn district attorney. But the Brooklyn Democratic organization certainly realizes it. Sandra Roper is running against long-time incumbent Charles J. Hynes, or at least trying to. Roper circulated her petitions together with two candidates, Eileen N. Nadelson and Peter Sweeney, running for Civil Court judgeships against incumbents who, like Hynes, are supported by the Brooklyn machine.And how did this particularly shenanigan ultimately turn out, you wonder? (As if you didn't already know.) Here is the follow-up piece in the Gotham Gazette by Kimberly Strobl and David Schwartz :
Roper expected her petitions to be challenged. After all, any voter in Brooklyn (not just her opponent) is legally eligible to have challenged her petitions by filing a general objection at the Board of Elections within three days after the petition was filed and then, if they wanted to pursue the challenge, filing what is called a specification of the objection six days later. She could have expected two or even three challenges.
But what she got was unexpected and unprecedented. The Brooklyn Democratic organization filed 142 general objections and 134 specifications against Roper. If that was not amazing enough, it also filed 172 general objections and 160 specifications against Peter Sweeney and 234 general objections and 230 specifications against Eileen Nadelson.
Although Roper, Nadelson, and Sweeney had filed over 12,800 signatures, or more than triple the requirement of 4,000 signatures, their ability to run was now in jeopardy. The Brooklyn Democratic organization had challenged nearly all of their signatures. They had to face the possibility that the Board would sustain the challenges and remove their names from the ballot. Then they would have to go to court to restore signatures the Board of Elections had found invalid, and thus get their names put back onto the ballot.
But to do so they faced the ingenuity and power of the Brooklyn Democratic organization. To bring a court challenge, a candidate has to name and serve all of the people who objected to their petitions. The failure to name or serve even one objector renders the court challenge meaningless and the Board decision goes unchallenged.
The Board of Elections met on Wednesday, August 1st and found that three candidates had over 6,500 invalid signatures. But that left each of them with over 6,200 signatures, enough to keep them on the ballot -- for now.
The Brooklyn Democratic organization has commenced its own proceeding to overturn the determination by the Board of Elections that there were enough valid signatures. Win or lose, the Brooklyn organization will keep the three candidates in court for most of the summer arguing over whether their petitions are good or not. And while they are in court, they are not out on the street campaigning. Oh to have the support of the Brooklyn Democratic organization.
What happens when five lawyers and a judge are running in an election?Where is Rev. Al "No Justice, No Peace" Sharpton when we really need him?
The answer is the most heavily litigated fight of the election season, involving the delivery of about 200 subpoenas and the testimony of more than 100 witnesses over five days, including five ex-candidates, a handwriting expert, and the first person since suffragette Susan B. Anthony to be convicted for voting.
The Democratic party organization can work hard to knock a candidate off the ballot. And every year, there is one case that shows just how hard.
This year, that case is the race for Brooklyn district attorney (See Campaign Tangle 3). The incumbent, Charles "Joe" Hynes, has challenged the petitions of newcomer Sandra Roper. Actually, there are two other races that are really part of the same story -- two candidates for civil court judge, whose petitions were challenged by two Hynes' allies and fellow machine candidates.
And the outcome?
The short answer is, this is Brooklyn.
THE LONGER ANSWER
Last April, Roper decided to run for district attorney and challenge Hynes, a 12 year -incumbent. Hynes does not face the term limits law because the district attorney is a state position.
"Brooklyn is the most diverse borough and I didn't feel like everyone in the community was being represented," says Roper, who is black and was born in Panama.
In May, John Kennedy O'Hara approached Roper and offered to help with her campaign by becoming in charge of collecting enough signatures to get her on the ballot. Roper accepted his offer. An outsider knowing O'Hara's past might wonder why.
O'Hara had been a perennial candidate over the years, challenging and losing to Democratic organization candidates five times in city and state elections. But in 1996, O'Hara was arrested for voting in a district where he did not live, and falsifying his voter registration four years earlier while running for the state legislature.
Registering to vote in a district where one does not live is usually treated as a civil case or is ignored. As the Daily News wrote, "The worst that happens to most gadflies who challenge Brooklyn's Democratic organization is that party-linked judges throw them off the ballot." But the Brooklyn district attorney took O'Hara's case to trial three times. That district attorney was Hynes.
Last June, O'Hara became the first New Yorker ever to be convicted for, as the New York Law Journal put it, "illegal voting and false registration."
O'Hara received a $20,000 fine and 1,500 hours of community service. He was also disbarred.
"Similar charges have failed to derail many Democratic organization loyalists, such as a Bronx councilwoman who said she lived in her district even though her children were enrolled in Rockland County schools," wrote the Daily News.
Not only was this unfair, O'Hara charged, it was hypocritical; he started calling Hynes "Breezy Point Joe", because Hynes owns a house in Breezy Point, Queens, even though he is the D.A. in Brooklyn .
After the verdict, Hynes sounded stern: "The Court has sent a clear, unequivocal message that one cannot defraud the voters of Kings County."
So it is not hard to imagine that O'Hara thought of helping Roper as a way to get back at Hynes. But, O'Hara denies that. "I saw a candidate I thought was very good," he says, "and I wanted to help out."
Why didn't Sandra Roper hesitate to get involved with O'Hara? "He volunteered to help, and he had experience with petitioning," Roper says.
GETTING THE SIGNATURES
O'Hara took over the petitioning for the campaign, the court found. He suggested that her name be put together on petitions with two candidates for civil court judge, Eileen Nadelson and Peter Sweeney. Five candidates for City Council also agreed to attach Roper, Nadelson and Sweeney's names to their petitions.
Combining names on a petition, which is called joint petitioning, is commonly used, and is not illegal. It enables a voter to sign once for numerous candidates, making it easier for all the candidates to collect enough signatures.
In addition, O'Hara told the candidates they would not have to pay for the cost of printing the petitions, he would raise money for their campaigns, and that if objections were filed to their petitions, legal representation would be provided.
Workers, both paid and unpaid, collected 12,839 signatures for Roper, Nadelson and Sweeney, almost three times more than the 4,000 signatures needed.
With the backing of the Brooklyn Democratic organization, Hynes challenged Roper's signatures. At the same time, Nadelson and Sweeney's opponents -- Mark Partnow and incumbent Howard A. Ruditsky, also both the choices of the Brooklyn machine -- challenged their signatures. The board ruled for Roper's side.
But that wasn't the end, as the case went to court.
At the New York State Supreme Court trial held in a Brooklyn courthouse, campaign workers testified that they forged signatures and filled in missing information. Another testified that he was paid by the number of signatures collected. (A flat fee is legal; being paid per signature is not). Witnesses testified that though their names were on petitions, they did not know anything about it. It even came out that one Marie Alvey Williams, collecting signatures for city council candidate Yolanda Martin (along with Roper, Nadelson, and Sweeney) alphabetically copied 400 signatures from the list of enrolled Democrats in the 40th Assembly District.
Roper admits that there were some irregularities, but that it was neither intentional nor widespread. "If you serve that many subpoenas, you're bound to find mistakes," she says. "You're dealing with novices, senior citizens, people without experience."
The judge saw it differently. He ruled that there were too many problems with the petitions, and he declared them invalid.
"A candidate may not turn a blind eye to the actions taken by his or her campaign staff or campaign volunteers," Judge Lewis L. Douglass wrote in the decision.
Roper vows to challenge the decision, and blames the Brooklyn Democratic organization. "I'm flabbergasted by the might and power the Brooklyn Democratic organization holds. I will continue to fight. Something needs to be done to change the ballot process," she says. "A lot of my support was from immigrants who had never been involved in an election before." Roper, a civil rights attorney, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft asking him to step in because the case against her was racist.
"If you look at the courtroom, you see most of my supporters are from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, are Latino or black. Imagine how disenfranchising this is for them to have to be in court because they wanted to get involved."
Why, indeed, did such a high-profile incumbent like Charles Hynes go to such lengths to kick off an opponent that was considered a longshot to win?
"Mr. Hynes is not available for comment," says a spokesman for Hynes' campaign, Mortimer Matz. But Matz is: "Mr. Hynes was not afraid of losing," he says. " In such an egregious case of fraud, the petitions had to be challenged." "Fraud and invalidity," echoes Jeffrey Feldman, executive director of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.
One theory is that Roper was not necessarily the major target of all those challenges.
Eileen Nadelson, a woman in a field of male candidates, could have posed a challenge to incumbent Civil Court judge Howard Ruditsky.
"Howard Ruditsky has been a judge for 10 years, and how many people have heard of him?" one insider said. "He's very vulnerable."
Another theory is that this is just something that the Democratic party does. Every election year, it seems, there is at least one candidate that gets it good.
"This is the most heavily fought legal challenge this year," says one observer. "But definitely not in history."
March 10, 2003 at 09:48 AM | Permalink
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