Published January 17, 2012
Michael LoPorto arrived at the Rensselaer County Courthouse in Troy, N.Y. on Tuesday for his trial, which accuses him of being part of a “massive” voter fraud scheme.
The former Democratic city councilman and popular local restaurant owner appeared jaunty and relaxed as he answered a series of questions from Fox News -- despite facing felony allegations that could send him to prison for seven years.
"Did you do anything wrong?"
"Did you forge any absentee ballots?"
"No, I did not."
"Did you steal an election, or try to steal one?"
"Again, you asked me that before, I told you no!"
For a year now, LoPorto has steadfastly maintained his innocence, along with current Rensselaer County Democratic Elections Commissioner Edward McDonough, who refused to comment on the case Tuesday. They are the first indicted officials to be tried in a widespread investigation that has implicated eight Democrats, including county and city elected officials and party operatives. Four defendants have already pleaded guilty to a variety of charges, and what has already unfolded exposes just how easy it could be for political insiders to illegally manipulate the electoral system.
Voters told Fox News they never filled out absentee ballot applications for the 2009 Working Families Party primary, and were later stunned to learn the applications were, in fact, turned in to the Board of Elections, with ballots cast in their names. Democratic candidates routinely try to secure the Working Families electoral line to obtain more votes in the general election. The party was associated with the now-defunct community group ACORN.
"Jackals prey upon the weakest member of the herd. That's what happened here," LoPorto's attorney Michael Feit said of the guilty pleas in which former officials admitted forging ballot applications and submitting them as legitimate votes.
Feit concedes "there is no question" that someone tried to steal the election. "It is awful, it's despicable, it's terrible," he added.
But he insists his client was not a part of what happened, noting neither LoPorto's DNA nor fingerprints were found on any of the allegedly faked applications. Forgery charges were dropped against LoPorto before the trial began, leaving 29 counts of criminal possession of a forged instrument.
“There is no proof, in my view, that will show ... that he knew that what he possessed was a forged instrument," said Feit, referring to the allegedly faked absentee ballot applications. "Michael LoPorto is not 'a good 'ol boy.' He’s not been a politician all his life. He doesn’t rely on a political job to support himself and his family. He, in fact, got the most votes in this election. He didn't need to rig any election."
McDonough’s attorney, Brian Premo, has said in court papers that his client “asserted his innocence” and has called the proceedings “a wrongful scapegoat investigation and prosecution.” McDonough faces 74 counts of forgery and criminal possession of a forged instrument.
Two veteran Democratic political operatives in Troy said voter fraud is an accepted way of winning elections, and faking absentee ballots was commonplace.
Anthony DeFiglio, a Democratic Committeeman who pleaded guilty to falsifying business records, told state police investigators that such fraud is actually "an ongoing scheme and it occurs on both sides of the aisle. The people who are targeted live in low-income housing and there is a sense that they are a lot less likely to ask any questions... What appears as a huge conspiracy to nonpolitical persons is really a normal political tactic."
Anthony Renna, another longtime Democratic operative and party committeeman, admitted to forging an absentee ballot application. He said the process of handing in forged ballots and fake votes ensures that "ballots are voted correctly."
"I knew that the actual voters had not voted the ballots or signed the envelopes, but that did not concern me. I am not the ballot police," Renna said in a statement to police. "I have been present when 'ballots were voted correctly' by party operatives. Voted correctly is a term used for a forged application or ballot."
According to transcripts, Renna said, “I have been asked if I ever discuss forging ballots/applications with anyone and whether any ballots/applications were ever forged in front of me. The answer is no, because if two people know a secret, it is one too many. There is a saying in politics, 'I can't rob a bank with you.' This saying refers to someone who can't be trusted."
DeFiglio, through his family, declined an opportunity to comment to Fox News. Renna also declined to comment.
"It shakes the confidence of the voters when they see something like this happened," said former Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian, who recently left office and is now a Republican member of the county legislature. "We want to encourage people to get out and vote and express their democracy. But if they see their right to vote being taken away by others, they are going to be hesitant and think that their vote isn't worth anything,"
Special Prosecutor Trey Smith obtained indictments against a slew of public officials, including former City Council President Clem Campana, City Clerk William McInerney, and two city councilmen besides LoPorto, John Brown and Gary Galuski. Campana and Galuski have pleaded not guilty.
Brown, who pleaded guilty to possession of a forged instrument, could go to jail for six months. LoPorto, who ran for re-election last November as the Working Families Party candidate, was defeated.
McDonough remains at the Board of Elections.
"Vigilance on our level as elected officials in the city of Troy, and the county and even state level, can make sure that things like this don’t happen in the future," said Tutunjian, who hopes “the trial's beginning will help put a resolution to this ugly chapter in Troy's history."
As for LoPorto, he had a simple message for reporters as he stood in the courthouse: “I hope I get vindicated.”
Meredith Orban and Tamara Gitt contributed to this report. If you suspect voter or election fraud where you live, tell us: Voterfraud@Foxnews.com