In Queens, questions about compliance with campaign ballot petition signature regulations

The welcome sign outside the ground floor offices of the Queens Borough Office of the New York City Board of Elections on Queens Boulevard. Source : Louis Flores/Progress Queens

The welcome sign outside the ground floor offices of the Queens Borough Office of the New York City Board of Elections on Queens Boulevard. Source : Louis Flores/Progress Queens

By LOUIS FLORES

The reëlection campaigns of two incumbent members of the New York City Council from the Queens delegation have been beset with questions about their ballot petition signatures. Candidates wishing to appear on the ballots for political parties are required to collect ballot petition signatures from voters registered for those political parties, and the petition signatures must be verified, according to regulations. 

Councilmember Paul Vallone (D-Bayside) has been taken to Court by his Democratic Party primary challenger, Paul Graziano. Mr. Graziano has alleged in a legal filing that the reëlection campaign of Councilmember Vallone collected invalid petition signatures. The civil proceeding, before New York State Supreme Court for Queens County, seeks a determination that would restrain the New York City Board of Elections from printing Councilmember Vallone's name on the Democratic Party primary ballot, amongst other relief being sought. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, 8 August at Queens County Civil Courthouse in Jamaica, Queens.

The office of Councilmember Vallone did not answer a request for an interview for this report.

A reporter making an attempt on Wednesday afternoon to inspect at the Queens Borough Office of the Board of Elections the ballot petition signatures collected by Councilmember Vallone's relection committee was turned away and was, instead, referred to an Agency spokesperson. Valerie Vazquez, a spokesperson for the Board of Elections, said that the Agency was reviewing Councilmember Vallone's signatures and would, upon the making of advance request for an appointment, arrange for a reporter to be able to inspect Councilmember's ballot petition signatures. When asked if the Board of Elections could await the outcome of Mr. Graziano's Court proceeding with about six weeks before the date of the Democratic Party primary election, Ms. Vazquez postulated that the Board of Elections could accommodate a Court decision rendered with just one week left before the Democratic Party primary election.

Other advance questions submitted in writing by Progress Queens to the general e-mail account of the Board of Elections were not answered for this report.

Mr. Graziano, who initiated the legal proceedings against the Councilmember Vallone, said that it was important that the public have confidence in campaign committees complying with election system regulations. "We have to make sure that justice is served," Mr. Graziano said.

Mr. Graziano's legal challenge of Councilmember Vallone's ballot petition signatures follows word that the majority of the ballot petition signatures collected for the Independence Party by the reëlection committee of another incumbent, Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley (D-Ridgewood), have been invalidated by the Board of Elections, meaning that Councilmember Crowley will not appear on the Independence Party line in the November general election. News of the Board of Elections' determination against Councilmember Crowley was revealed on a Facebook post by Councilmember Crowley's Democratic Party primary challenger, Robert Holden. The office of Councilmember Crowley did not answer a press inquiry for an interview for this report.

Speaking generally of the allegations of misconduct in the ballot petition signature collections of various reëlection campaign committees, Mr. Graziano said, "I see this as a systemic issue. It's not just this candidate," he said, referring to Councilember Vallone.

According to information obtained by Progress Queens, there have been allegations that various campaign committees, including that of Councilmember Vallone, may have engaged in violations of regulations governing ballot petition signature collection four years ago. The allegations of violations have extended to the current election cycle, according to a source.

Mr. Graziano's legal filing identified Councilmember Vallone's campaign manager as Patrick Jordan. Because Mr. Graziano's legal filing alleged that Mr. Jordan oversaw fraud in the ballot petition signature collections, Mr. Graziano's legal filing argued that Mr. Jordan's "participation in fraud in connection with petitioning renders" Councilmember Vallone's "petition invalid as permeated with fraud." In the legal filing, Mr. Graziano reserved his right to raise new objections during the Court proceedings.

Mr. Graziano said that a lack of information about processes act to the benefit of political insiders. "Unfortunately the public is not as educated on petitions as the political parties," Mr. Graziano said, adding that the rules governing ballot petition signature collection are set up in such a way that unless opposition campaign committees have resources, it is very difficult to challenge the misconduct by incumbent reëlection campaign committees. Mr. Graziano is represented by Martin Connor, a former New York State Senator with a Brooklyn Heights law office with a very active election law practise.

Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde, left, and District Attorney Richard Brown (D-Queens) have jurisdiction to investigate criminality in the allegations of misconduct made against the reëlection campaign committee of Councilmember Paul Vallone (D-Bayside). Source : LinkedIn/Queens District Attorney's Office/Fair Use

Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde, left, and District Attorney Richard Brown (D-Queens) have jurisdiction to investigate criminality in the allegations of misconduct made against the reëlection campaign committee of Councilmember Paul Vallone (D-Bayside). Source : LinkedIn/Queens District Attorney's Office/Fair Use

Although the Graziano-Vallone legal match-up is set to take place in Queens County Civil Court, the legal filing by Mr. Graziano alleges fraud and forgery. Other allegations include that on some of the ballot petition sheets, the subscribing witnesses to the petitions were not a registered voter or an enrolled Democratic Party member, as is required by regulations or as represented on the ballot petitions. According to Mr. Graziano's legal filing, it has been alleged that Councilmember Vallone's reëlection campaign used minors to collect petition signatures. It is not known if the presiding judge in Mr. Graziano's legal action would refer the allegations of criminality in the Court filing to law enforcement authorities. District Attorney Richard Brown (D-Queens) runs for office with the support of the Queens Democratic County Committee, which provides key institutional support to incumbents, such as Councilmembers Vallone and Crowley. The Queens Democratic County Committee is chaired by U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, a relative of Councilember Crowley.

The allegations that campaign committees may be violating Board of Elections regulations over ballot petition signature collections comes in the wake of an ongoing Federal civil rights lawsuit against the Board of Elections over purges to the voter registration rolls that impacted the Democratic Party primary elections in the 2016 election cycle. The Federal civil rights lawsuit, initially filed by Common Cause New York, has been joined by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice and by the New York State Attorney General's Office.

Several advance questions submitted to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn were not answered for this report. The Brooklyn Federal prosecutors' office is headed by Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde. Under the leadership of Acting U.S. Attorney Rohde's predecessor, U.S. Attorney Robert Capers, the Brooklyn Federal prosecutors' office waged an intense investigation of some County political officials on Long Island. It is not known if Acting U.S. Attorney Rohde will flex the muscles of her office to launch a similarly intense investigation of Queens County political officials.

Several news reports have questioned the independence of Queens County Court system due to beneficial relationships between political operatives connected to the Queens Democratic County Committee and some key Queens County Court administrators. As with District Attorney Brown, judges serving in the Queens County Court system must run for office with the institutional support of the Queens Democratic County Committee.