Party rigs nominating petitions to retain power, say plaintiffs
In an effort to maintain its stranglehold on elected office in the Bronx, the leaders of the borough’s Democratic Party have carried out an elaborate scheme to rig the makeup of the county committee, a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Aug. 16 charges.
An outgrowth of an unsuccessful challenge to the nominating petitions of Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, who is also the Bronx Democratic County Committee’s chairman, the suit claims to have uncovered evidence of a conspiracy by committee leaders to defraud voters and cheat registered Democrats of a voice in borough elections.
The county committee chooses candidates for office, helps them get on the ballot (and often gets their opponents removed) and helps those it supports raise funds and organize their campaigns. Those it backs for the state legislature, city council, borough president or judgeships seldom lose.
Although the members of the county committee are supposed to be elected, in practice more than half are appointed by party leaders who set out to sabotage the election, the suit charges.
According to the suit, the scheme included:
- forging signatures on nominating petitions;
- running dead people and people who moved away years ago as candidates for the county committee;
- and deliberately distorting addresses to prevent chosen members of the county committee from being notified of meetings.
When those candidates don’t show up for a meeting of the county committee, their seats are declared vacant, and then are filled with the hand-picked choices of the leaders.
As a result, the suit says, the party leaders “exercise complete and authoritarian control over the composition of the Bronx Democratic County Committee’s Executive Board, its platform, and its entire slate of candidates in every primary election in every race in the entire Bronx.”
The suit lays the scheme at the door of Stanley K. Schlein, a longtime fixture of Bronx politics who is an expert in election law and is known as a power behind the throne. Schlein is the only person singled out by name in the suit, whose other defendants are the executive committee of the county committee and up to 100 unidentified co-conspirators.
The suit calls Schlein “the linchpin” of the scheme, noting that he is responsible for preparing the organization’s nominating petitions, is the person charged with making corrections in addresses and “is the first-named member of the Committee to Appoint Vacancies for all of the County Committee’s candidates for every public office in the Bronx up for election this year and every year for decades.”
Schlein did not return calls seeking comment, but in state Supreme Court on Aug. 12, responding to the challenge to Crespo’s petitions, he angrily threatened to seek sanctions against Donald Dunn, the lawyer bringing the suit, saying, “The only scam here is being perpetrated by Mr. Dunn.”
Anthony Perez, executive director of the Bronx County Committee, denounced the challengers’ claims as “absurd, a waste of money, completely unfounded.”
“Unfortunately we have to respond to every claim, but our work product was legitimate and done appropriately,” said Perez, while attending the Board of Elections hearing on Crespo’s petitions. “The real focus should be on these guys wasting all this time.”
The suit says the five plaintiffs typify the various schemes in the alleged conspiracy and represent hundreds of others.
Three of the plaintiffs—Alison Bush, Joyce Culler and Ilka Rios–are community activists who were listed as candidates for the county committee on nominating petitions but were not notified of the committee’s meeting and were replaced.
In interviews, Bush and Rios complained that they learned after the fact that their names had been on nominating petitions.
“I was very upset,” said Bush. “The words I said when I heard this, you can’t print.”
Rios discovered that her name was misspelled on a committee mailing list as “Lika Rioa.” Additionally, she says her apartment number was left off the line with her address. An Election Day coordinator at the polls, she said, “All the politicians I’ve had dealings with all these years, and no one thought to tell me I was on the county committee or why I wasn’t showing up to the meetings?”
Another plaintiff, Winifred Coulton, contends that her signature was forged on a nominating petition. The fifth, Pamela Stewart-Martinez, is running for the State Assembly against incumbent Luis Sepulveda.
They are asking the court to intervene in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary by declaring the nominating petitions invalid and substituting another method for placing candidates on the ballot. They also want the court to appoint federal monitors for the primary and later elections.
In a direct plea to the judge, the suit says, “This Court’s intervention in the Bronx’s next election — the September 13, 2016 primary election — is the Bronx’s only hope of holding our first free and fair election in decades.”