BRIDGEPORT – Sitting beside a gallery of interested onlookers at Fairfield Judicial District Superior Court on Thursday, mayoral candidate John Gomes watched as his legal counsel questioned key city officials in the first evidentiary hearing of his absentee ballot fraud lawsuit against Mayor Joe Ganim.
Gomes filed the lawsuit against his opponent following the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, and released a video of a woman — whom he claims is Wanda Geter-Pataky, vice chair of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee and a Ganim supporter — depositing numerous absentee ballots into a City Hall drop box.
The challenger won at the polls last month with 3,110 in-person votes, versus Ganim’s 2,667. But after a count of absentee ballots, Ganim came out on top with 4,212 in total compared to Gomes’ 3,961.
At the preliminary hearing last month, Gomes said his ultimate goal for the lawsuit – which names Ganim, Democratic Registrar of Voters Patricia Howard, Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas and Town Clerk Charles Clemons as defendants – is for Judge William Clark to issue another primary election.
After being postponed by two weeks as the parties awaited over 2,000 hours of video footage from Bridgeport police and copies of absentee ballots from the Secretary of the State, Gomes’ attorney, Bill Bloss, kicked off the hearing with testimony from three of his witnesses: Howard, Assistant Town Clerk Christina Resto and Police Captain Paul Grech.
A missing signature
Bloss called the validity of several primary absentee ballots into question.
With Howard at the witness stand, Bloss presented a copy of the Secretary of the State’s manual for counting absentee ballots to the courtroom. In the manual, he said, are steps that election officials like Howard must adhere to.
According to the manual, absentee ballot counters must check each outer envelope to ensure that it has been endorsed by the municipal clerk. That endorsement must include the date and time that the clerk received the ballot and the clerk’s signature. Without that, the manual states, the ballot cannot be counted.
On numerous absentee ballots from last month’s primary, Bloss said, the town clerk’s signature is missing.
“Under those circumstances, the ballots cannot be counted,” Bloss said.
Asked if she knew about the Secretary of the State’s signature requirement, Howard – who has worked for the city Registrar of Voters for almost 27 years – said she was unaware, and said had never looked for a signature in the past.
“I thought that as long as it was stamped by the town clerk, that it was OK,” Howard replied. “I didn’t know it required a signature.”
Bloss did not disclose exactly how many of the counted absentee ballots were missing signatures from the town clerk. But altogether, the city accepted a total of 2,396 absentee ballots – 1,545 for Ganim and 851 for Gomes – and rejected 152.
In her testimony, Assistant Town Clerk Resto said the missing signature on the endorsement stamps stemmed from broken equipment.
Resto explained that the city did previously use an endorsement stamp with Clemons’s signature, but just before the primary that stamp broke. She said the town clerk’s office had to use a “loaner” in the meantime.
Similar to Howard, Resto also maintained that she was unaware of the state law that requires a signature from the town clerk.
12 hours of missing footage
While questioning Police Captain Grech about the city’s camera systems, Bloss also revealed that the case was missing a 12-hour section of camera footage.
Before the trial, Gomes requested copies of all absentee ballot drop boxes and the registrars of voters lobby from Aug. 22 to Sept. 12. While Bridgeport police submitted the footage in time for the Thursday hearing, a small chunk was missing.
Grech explained that the police have about 3,000 cameras set up throughout the city. To save space, he said, the camera system wipes the footage every 30 days.
Grech said that in order to transfer the more eight terabytes of data for the trial without crashing the software system, the police segmented the footage into separate hard drives. But as his staff was separating the footage, he said, they accidentally cut out a 12-hour period.
“By the time we went back to do the compliance check, that 12 hours was no longer available,” Grech said.
Grech held that the mistake was no one person’s fault, and did not specify the exact timeframe missing footage. Neither Bloss nor the defendant’s legal counsel pushed further on the issue, and swiftly moved past it.
During a recess on Thursday, John Kennelly, an attorney representing Howard, said Bloss has a “big job” to do, pointing to a lack of evidence.
“Just that video isn’t going to get the job done,” Kennelly said.
But after the hearing, Bloss said he will be presenting many pieces of evidence for the court to go through – including, but not limited to, the available camera footage.
“My expectation is there’s going to be some playing of the most pertinent videos here shortly,” Bloss told reporters. “And that’s going to be more than what you’ve seen on social media.”
In addition to reviewing the footage, Bloss said he has subpoenaed Geter-Pataky and Ganim for the continuation of the evidentiary hearing on Friday.
Gomes added that after the Thursday hearing, he is still hopeful that “justice will prevail” and the courts will issue another primary election.
“The evidence, as we move forward, will convey that message as well. As he says, there’ll be more specific evidence to show exactly what we’re talking about,” Gomes said.