Lawsuit fails to block Bronx primaries

Though a federal court judge ordered Democratic primaries in the Bronx to go ahead as scheduled on Sept. 13, she told plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging fraud by high-ranking county Democrats that she is open to hearing more details in their case as they gather evidence.

election-2016_mccaig_istock_000033135890_smallBut federal judge leaves opening for plaintiffs to pursue their case

A federal judge declined to delay the Sept. 13 Democratic primaries in the Bronx but will permit a lawsuit to go forward against the Bronx Democratic Party that seeks billions of dollars in damages along with changes in the conduct of future elections.

The suit’s allegation of fraud “is clearly a very serious problem,” declared Judge Kimba Wood in a Sept. 6 hearing in federal district court in Manhattan.

The plaintiffs say they are victims of an elaborate form of identify theft carried out by the borough’s ruling political body, the Bronx County Democratic Committee, to maintain its long-held power. They say they and hundreds of other Bronxites are listed on nominating petitions as candidates for that influential committee without their knowledge. That way, the suit alleges, the party can claim to have more widespread grassroots support for its candidates and platforms than it really does.

Judge Wood told the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Donald Dunn, that he could return to court, “when you’ve had more time,” to gather additional evidence.

A lawyer representing the Bronx County Democratic Committee, Marissa Soto, told the judge that postponement of the primaries would have hurt 400,000 registered Bronx voters by causing “irreparable harm to their faith in the system and their First Amendment rights.”

Party punishes plaintiff

West Farms resident Ilka Rios has been a paid poll worker since 2008, then promoted to poll coordinator in 2011. But days after her name appeared in articles in the Herald and the Daily News in recent weeks as a plaintiff in the case, she received a curt phone message from the Board of Elections telling her not to come pick up her coordinator package for the upcoming primary in the 79th State Assembly district, which includes Melrose.
When Rios called back to ask why she had been removed as poll coordinator, she was told, “I don’t know—-you’ve been removed by ‘County’”—as the Democratic organization is known. Rios said she has never been subject to a complaint by poll workers she has supervised.
At the hearing, lawyer Donald Dunn told the judge that the party was retaliating against Rios, and urged her to ask for Rios to be reinstated as poll coordinator.
Wood warned the Democrats’ lawyer Soto that, “If there’s retaliation, that’s a problem.” Soto responded that Rios’ “poll worker status will remain.”
When Wood ordered the Board of Elections’ general counsel, Steven Richman, to intervene on Rios’ behalf as well, Richman responded that the state can’t tell counties what to do.
“We have no control over the political party,” Richman said.

So far, about 30 Bronx residents have said they didn’t know their names were on the nominating petitions until activists scrutinizing the petitions informed them. Most say their names are misspelled on the Committee registry and apartment numbers are left off their addresses. The mistakes, the suit charges, are deliberate, manufactured so the chosen candidates will not show up at the committee’s first meeting and can then be replaced with flunkies, or not at all.

Dunn argued that “the percentage of incomplete addresses is near 100 percent” on petitions in some voting districts, and added that a video of the County Committee’s convention shortly after the 2014 primaries shows turnout to be very low—an indication, he said, that the party leadership wants to exclude participants so it can control the agenda.

At full strength, the Bronx County Democratic Committee can comprise about 2,500 residents from across the borough. Members are expected to take part in meetings to help determine the party’s platforms and candidates.
Soto told the judge that Dunn’s contention that the disqualification of about 360 Committee members this year is “not indicative of anything nefarious or any kind of gamesmanship.”

The plaintiffs, however, said after the hearing that they are eager for a chance to tell the court how they were duped. About a dozen of them came to testify, but weren’t called to the witness stand.

Marjorie Vanhook, 28, said she and her mother, Patricia Jones, joined the Bronx Democratic Club in 2010, with the aim of giving back to their University Heights community in events like Thanksgiving turkey giveaways. Neither considered joining the politically-oriented County Committee, she said.

She and her mother, both poll workers, were stunned when activists informed them recently that their names appear on the County Committee’s roster of active members. She said that since joining the Democratic Club, she and her mother have received invitations to attend social events but never to more substantive meetings where the party’s business is discussed.

She said she found out only recently that a County Committee meeting to vet party candidates was held on the same day several years ago when she and her mother attended a party social event. The lawsuit contends that unwitting members are regularly invited to mundane social events at the same time more critical party functions are held, to lend the appearance of widespread voluntary participation in Bronx Democratic affairs.

When Vanhook receives invitations to Democratic “celebrations,” her name is spelled correctly, she said. But as it appears on the County Committee’s roster, it is misspelled as Marjorie Vanhppk.

“I’ve been doing this since 2009 and they can always find me for celebrations and poll worker tests,” she said, but never for official meetings. “My name and information are being used.”