With DOJ proposing to join lawsuit over voting rolls purge in Brooklyn, will Feds probe deeper ?

By LOUIS FLORES

The offices of U.S. Attorney Robert Capers and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta made a filing in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn on Thursday, alleging that the New York City Board of Elections violated and continue to violate the National Voter Registration Act following the purging of approximate 120,000 voters from the registration rolls in Brooklyn. The Federal Government made its filing to join a civil lawsuit filed by Common Cause New York that had sought a restoration of the purged voters to the registration rolls.

In the Letter Motion that Federal prosecutors filed, the U.S. Department of Justice admitted that it had commenced an investigation of the purging of the Brooklyn voter rolls in April 2016, in the same month when WNYC 93.9 FM broadcast its first report, revealing that a purging of the voter rolls in Brooklyn had taken place. In a report broadcast by WNYC this week, journalist Brigid Bergin reported that analysis of information obtained under the State's Freedom of Information Law showed that Latino voters registered in the district represented by U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-Brooklyn) were disproportionately affected by the purging. In the 2016 election cycle, U.S. Rep. Velázquez was facing two primary challengers, according to a report filed by a team of WNYC journalists.

The proposed Federal complaint noted that the Brooklyn office of the Board of Elections was deficient in training, systems, procedures, maintenance, and oversight. Typically, control over each borough's office of the Board of Elections is influenced by the two major political parties. Because registered voters in New York City are skewed in numbers that favor the Democratic Party, the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee can exert influence on the operations of the Brooklyn office of the Board of Elections. In the proposed Federal complaint, Federal prosecutors alleged that the planning to purge voters in Brooklyn began in late 2013 or early 2014, and staff of the Brooklyn office of the Board of Elections then flagged voters for purging from that time then, continuing into 2015. Frank Seddio was selected as the chair of the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee in September 2012 to replace former Assemblymember Vito Lopez (D-Bushwick), who was described in press reports as having been ethically-challenged. The journalist Jon Lentz filed a report for City & State in July 2015, noting that U.S. Rep. Velázquez was reserving judgement on Mr. Seddio's leadership, telling Mr. Lentz, in part, that, "I still have my issues, because I would like to see more reform implemented within the structure of the Brooklyn Democratic Party." In the time since that City & State report was published, questions have been raised about how the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee may be using political considerations to determine which sitting judges stand for reëlection to the New York State Supreme Court.

Brooklyn is the home political base of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City), and support from Mr. Seddio was reported to have made the difference in the selection of Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Spanish Harlem) as speaker of the New York City Council. Commissionerships to the Board of Elections are approved by vote of the New York City Council. During the time period when Federal prosecutors alleged that the Brooklyn office of the Board of Elections was planning or taking action to purge voters from the registration rolls, the New York City Council voted to approve at least three commissionerships to the Board of Elections, including one for Brooklyn, according to a report published by The New York Daily News. The votes, made in secret, became the subject of controversy when, in 2014, the political reporter Celeste Katz filed a report for The New York Daily News, noting that Councilmember Corey Johnson (D-Chelsea) had reportedly threatened to shut out Councilmembers from participating in the process to select a new Board of Elections commissioner, if Councilmembers were caught leaking to the press details about the Manhattan City Council delegation’s secretive deliberations to select the new commissioner. The same elected officials with power to fund and regulate the Board of Elections also carry out in secret party functions to determine commissionerships of the Board of Elections.

The press office of New York City Council did not answer a request made by Progress Queens for an interview on behalf of Speaker Mark-Viverito.

Mayor de Blasio, who also has budgetary power over the Board of Elections, has responded to the purging of voters from the Brooklyn registration rolls by proposing a set of reforms that would need approval by State officials. His reforms deliberately stopped short any effort to hold accountable the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee or the New York City Council, which has power to approve commissionerships at the Board of Elections, including commissionerships that would provide leadership at the Brooklyn office of the Board of Elections.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis has not yet ruled on the Government's Letter Motion, according to information obtained by Progress Queens. Because the Government has made determinations that the Board of Elections is deficient in training, systems, procedures, maintenance, and oversight, it is not known whether Federal prosecutors will be looking into whether the New York City Council, which is responsible for selecting the leadership for the Board of Elections, is responsible for creating the conditions that led to the violations of the National Voter Registration Act. Press officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to answer advance questions submitted late Friday afternoon by Progress Queens. Generally, Federal prosecutors refuse to answer media questions about investigations. Because the investigation of the Board of Elections may involve legal questions that may lead back to the New York City Council, it is not known if Federal prosecutors in Manhattan may be playing any role in the Federal investigation of the Board of Elections. Press officials working in the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara did not answer a question submitted by Progress Queens for clarification about its role, if any, in the investigation of the Board of Elections.

The Letter Motion filed by the Federal Government marks the latest, notable legal work by the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's eastern district under U.S. Attorney Capers. As reported by Progress Queens, even though the office of U.S. Attorney Capers has a mixed-record on civil rights, the Federal prosecutors in his office have been scaling up their prosecutorial work in the area of political and campaign corruption. Some of the work being done by Federal prosecutors has appeared to take place under the heavy influence of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. In the area of civil rights, Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have been reportedly reluctant to file Federal civil rights violation charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the New York Police Department officer widely reported to be responsible for applying a chokehold on Eric Garner, whose resulting death was later ruled a homicide. Brooklyn Federal prosecutors have also, without explanation, taken the lead to file charges against employees of Rentboy.com, an online community bulletin board for sex workers at a time when advocates for social justice reform are organizing to decriminalize sex work.

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