Case now headed for State Supreme Court’s appellate division
A special referee appointed by the State Supreme Court has ruled that Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo should remain on the ballot when Democratic primary voters go to the polls on Sept. 10.
The referee ruled that even though more than a thousand of the signatures the candidates must gather on nominating petitions were fraudulent, enough valid signatures remained to meet the threshold of 450 required by law. He dismissed the argument made by Arroyo’s opponent Julio Pabón that Arroyo should be held accountable for the phony signatures and punished by being eliminated from the race.
Today, a State Supreme Court judge accepted the referee’s ruling. Justice John W. Carter announced his decision after receiving the referee’s 24-page written report and arguments made to him by lawyers for both sides in the courtroom on Thursday. Pabón has announced he will appeal the decision to the court’s appellate division.
Arroyo maintains that she had no knowledge that three of her paid campaign workers had forged nearly a third of the nearly 3,400 signatures on the petitions when she submitted them in mid-July. After the Board of Elections eliminated signatures for forgery or because the signer was not eligible to vote in the district, 640 valid signatures remained, the referee found.
However, the referee, John D’Alessandro, criticized Arroyo, saying that she and her nephew, Richard Izquierdo, who worked with the campaign staff, “were negligent in the extreme in their supervision of the petition-gathering process.” They “admitted under oath to the equivalent of political campaign malpractice,” he concluded.
D’Alessandro expressed skepticism about Arroyo’s claim she had no idea that her workers were playing fast and loose with the petitions. He wrote that Arroyo “is knowledgeable and experienced about the process,” pointing out that she has been in office since 2005, and acknowledged during testimony that “these things happen in campaigns.” He added that the councilwoman has long been familiar with campaign strategies, since she has helped her mother Carmen Arroyo campaign since the elder Arroyo was elected to the State Assembly in 1994.
Despite her years of campaign experience, he said, Arroyo “contends she never so much as glanced at the petitions until after they had been filed.” He found “a great deal of this to be improbable,” he continued, but added he found it “equally implausible” to believe that she knew the workers she paid to gather signatures were committing forgery, as Pabón contended.
The lawyers argued their case to the referee at the Board of Elections during a week of testimony that ended last Monday. In all, nearly a dozen witnesses were called to testify during the last week in July and first week in August, including Arroyo herself. Pabón’s lawyer, Donald Dunn, called eight witnesses, all Hunts Point residents, who testified that their signatures on Arroyo’s petitions were forgeries.
On July 29, shortly after the Board of Elections hearings had gotten underway, Arroyo filed charges with the District Attorney’s office, against three of her workers, Betty Julien, Luis Vargas and Elbin Lopez, for the forgeries. She testified that she didn’t know Lopez, and was barely acquainted with the other two. The DA’s office has launched an investigation.
When the lawyers for both sides presented their final arguments on August 5, the lawyer for the Democratic party, Stanley Schlein, said the ploy by Arroyo’s workers hurt her more than it did the Hunts Point residents whose names they had forged.
“She was more of a victim than anybody else because it is her candidacy and reputation that is at risk here,” Schlein told the referee. He reiterated the claim in front of Justice Carter on August 8.
It “defies logic” that Arroyo would pay her workers to forge the signatures, Schlein added, and insisted that she “rejected the signatures as soon as she found out,” and pressed charges accordingly.
Dunn countered that Arroyo had gone to the DA only after Pabón’s staff brought the forgeries to light. After learning of the judge’s decision to uphold the referee’s finding, he wrote “We respectfully disagree with certain of the legal conclusions reached in today’s decision and we look forward to taking the matter up with the Appellate Division.”
This story was updated on Aug. 19 to note that the referee who heard arguments from the attorneys for both candidates is an employee of the Supreme Court of Bronx County, not the Board of Elections. The hearings took place at the office of the Bronx Board of Elections because that is where the voter registration records must be examined.