Published October 20, 2009
Brian Suozzo voted with an absentee ballot in the Working Families Party primary on Sept. 15 because, as his application stated, he was "at home recovering from medical procedure."
Jessica Boomhower's application said she would be attending a "work conference in Boston."
Michael Ward couldn't vote in person because he was "taking care of elderly parent."
Kimberlee Truell was on a "Bus trip to casino," as was Miguel Vazques.
The only problem with these absentee ballot records at the Rensselaer County Board of Elections in Troy, N.Y., is that they're phony, voters and investigators say -- and they've prompted what's being called an unprecedented investigation of suspected voter fraud.
Thirty-eight forged or fraudulent ballots have been thrown out -- enough votes, an election official admits, to likely have tipped the city council and county elections in November to the Democrats. Candidates would have been able to run both on the Democratic and Working Families Party lines in two weeks, and that could have given the Democrats the general election.
A special prosecutor is investigating the case and criminal charges are possible. New York State Supreme Court Judge Michael Lynch ruled that there were "significant election law violations that have compromised the rights of numerous voters and the integrity of the election process."
Among the reasons cited on the fraudulent forms for absentee voting: "traveling to Buffalo," attending a "screen printing conference in Syracuse," "working late shift," "working construction," and "home -- ill."
"Someone took my signature and voted with it and I felt extremely violated," Suozzo told Fox News. He is a soft-spoken 28-year-old environmental engineer who says he never saw, let alone signed, the Working Families Party Absentee ballot application that carried his supposed signature. He was flabbergasted that someone would vote for him and submit it.
"The whole thing seems dirty to me," Suzzo said. "You wonder how often this happens and people don't get caught."
He says he did not have any type of medical procedure, adding "I haven't been to the hospital in years."
"I feel that I was gypped," Boomhower said, ruefully. "I didn't get to cast my vote on my own."
Boomhower, a 28-year-old home health care worker, says three men came to her door asking her to sign a ballot application. It wasn't until after the election that a private investigator brought her the news that an absentee ballot indeed showed she had voted, when she actually had not.
"I can't believe they thought they would get away with this," she says angrily, noting that the false claim that she was in Boston could have jeopardized her job. "I don't want to see this get tossed aside," she told Fox News.
Michael Ward, whose ballot said he was taking care of an elderly parent, said "I got one parent left, and he lives in Albany and takes care of himself."
"They tried to steal an election," says Bob Mirch, the majority leader of the Rensselaer County legislature who suspected voter fraud and started the investigation after being alerted to a large number of absentee ballot application requests that were noticed by the Republican Board of Elections commissioner .
"Not only does it undermine the system, but if these people were allowed to do this, we could never have a fair election... I've been doing this for 35 years, when I saw this, it sends a chill through my body right now."
Mirch is a pugnacious veteran of the bruising county politics, a Conservative Party and Republican politician who is also Commissioner of Troy's Department of Public Works, which is why he relishes his sobriquet, "Bob, the Garbage Man." He brands local politics "a blood sport," in a city that in the 19th Century was once one of the country's wealthiest, has an abundance of elegant townhouses from that era, yet is often overshadowed by its neighbor Albany, the New York State capital. Campaign signs dot many front lawns, and it seems local political maneuvering is followed as closely as the Yankee playoffs. Mirch proudly admits he runs his own candidates in the left-leaning Working Families Party primaries to try and sap strength from the Democrats or gain the line for Republican candidates, but he insists he has never acted unlawfully, and blames his political opponents for doing just that.
"These Democrats and Working Families people couldn't bear taking another defeat at the hands of the garbage man, as I'm known in Troy, so they went out and took the law in their own hands to claim victory," he says.
"As soon as I heard it -- I was mad, disappointed, frustrated," says Troy Democratic Chairman Frank LaPosta. He blames what he calls "a rogue group of Democrats," and says what happened "is beyond comprehension."
LaPosta stood in his apron in his Italian salumeria, stocked with fresh delicacies and cuts of meat. He once ran for Mayor and appears genuinely wounded by the scandal.
"I believe we could have won without the Working Families Party line," he says. "To have something like this darken the election, its just an outrage for true Democrats in the city of Troy. This is not what the Democratic party in the city of Troy stands for," he said. "Some people think you have to have all the lines to win. I believe you have to have the issues to win."
The Working Families Party has recently gained strength, and controversy, in New York. Republican and Democratic candidates in the Empire State can also run on third party lines, such as the Working Families Party, as well as the Liberal, Conservative, and Independence parties, among others. The extra line means extra votes that could bring victory.
Hillary Clinton garnered 2.7 percent of her total votes from the WFP line when she first ran for Senate in 2000, which increased to 5 percent of her total vote in 2006. In September, Clinton's former campaign manager for her 2000 Senate run, New York City Councilman Bill DeBlasio, who has been endorsed by the WFP, beat two long-established politicians in the Democratic primary. Critics also accuse the Working Families Party of having a long association with the troubled activist group, ACORN. Bertha Lewis, ACORN's CEO, is one of the party's co-founders. The New York Times reported this month that "Patrick Gaspard, the White House political director, worked with ACORN in New York to set up the Working Families political party and sat on the party's board with Ms. Lewis."
The WFP has also endorsed New York Democratic Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, who was one of only seven Senators who voted against cutting federal housing funds to ACORN in September.
But the jockeying for a candidate to win the Working Families Party line may have crossed the line in Troy.
"We welcome the investigation," says former Working Families Party County Chair Pat Pafundi. WFP officials would either not return our calls or comment about the investigation, but Pafundi, a current party member, was clear. While she believes the political tactics engaged by Mirch to run candidates on the WFP line undermine the party, she admits "it looks like there has been some kind of fraud" regarding the questionable absentee ballots.
"For six years, we've gone door to door to work hard to do this the right way," she told Fox News. "Good government includes elections held with integrity and that is the way we have conducted ourselves and we hope the Democrats and Republicans would do the same also."
A lawsuit filed by Working Parties candidate Christian Lambersten, who ran in the primary, led to the suspected ballots being tossed. He is a lifelong friend of Mirch, who urged him to run in the WFP primary, along with five other Mirch-backed candidates.
"I always thought everything was done above board," he told Fox News about the absentee ballots. "You hear stories about this or that but I really didn't belive it until actually this happened," he said. "These people were taken advantage of -- whether they voted for me or not."
Lambersten's lawyer, David Gruenberg, calls what happened "the worst case of election fraud that I have seen in 32 years of practice" in Troy. "It goes far beyond what I have seen before because it involves fraudulently casting votes for individuals." He says the fraud was carried out by "individuals associated and working with the Democratic candidates ... they are working to get the WFP lines for their candidates in the general election."
Rensselaer County Democratic Chairman Tom Wade and Troy City Council President Clem Campana held a news conference refuting the charges, and called for a wider probe, claiming "a thorough objective investigation by a special prosecutor will reveal a culture of corruption within the county Republican administration."
In an interview with Fox News, Wade went further, questioning the veracity of the voters' affidavits, noting that they "were professionally done" by private investigators working for Mirch, and "eloquently written."
A former 18-year Democratic county elections commissioner himself, Wade puts the blame not on his party's political operatives, but on Mirch, and is calling for a countywide investigation of absentee ballots. He says he does not know if the allegations are true.
"I have known Bob Mirch long enough and well enough to know he would not pay private investigators to provide information that was not beneficial to his political agenda. This entire investigation is a smokescreen to cover a back-door pay raise" the legislature granted itself, he claimed. He calls the allegations "a diversion" created by Mirch for political reasons. But the accusations and affidavits are now the province of Trey Smith, a lawyer and former prosecutor, who has been appointed as a special prosecutor to investigate the scandal. Many of the people we talked to in Troy believe his findings will eventually lead to prosecutions.
"We caught this isolated incident, but how many times has this happened?" asks Suozzo, one of the registered Working Families Party voters who didn't even know about his vote.
Boomhower is blunt about politicans: "They're corrupt. I'm sure this goes on a lot in politics, but its very rare that they do get caught."
What's unfolding in Troy may prove voter fraud does exist, and threatens honest elections.
"You hear about absentee ballots and tampering," reflects Democratic official LaPosta. "To see politics like this is just the worst."
Fox News Senior Correspondent Eric Shawn and Producer Becky Diamond run the Fox News Voter Fraud Unit. You can report suspicious voting issues at: Voterfraud@FoxNews.com.