BRIDGEPORT – As supporters of Mayor Joe Ganim and challenger John Gomes flood the State Elections Enforcement Commission with new allegations of absentee ballot fraud, the commission announced a faster investigation than a four-year probe of the city’s 2019 Democratic primary.
SEEC Executive Director Michael Brandi said the combined 21 complaints related to the Sept. 12 primary election will be the “biggest investigation” the agency has ever undertaken. But commission spokesperson Joshua Foley also reassured skeptics that, per state law, the investigation must be completed in 2024.
Although this year’s fraud allegations are especially significant given that they resulted in the overturning of Ganim’s win in the primary and general election, the allegations themselves are similar to those made by Ganim’s 2019 opponent, State Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport. In both cases, Ganim supporters were accused of illegally gathering and submitting absentee ballots.
The 2019 SEEC investigation into alleged violation by Wanda Geter-Pataky, vice chair of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee, did not conclude until this summer, when the SEEC referred the case to the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney for potential criminal charges.
Geter-Pataky is a target of both the 2019 and the current investigation.
Foley said there were two key differences in the cases – the interruption of COVID and the lack of a looming deadline.
“That one that came in 2019 is a little bit of an outlier,” Foley said.
Foley said that by state law, a complaint before the commission must be resolved within a year of its filing date, or be dismissed. In 2019, instead, the SEEC was investigating materials from other election officials and the one-year rule did not apply.
Still, the timeline for any ensuing investigation by the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney is uncertain. In an email to CT Examiner, state Division of Criminal Justice spokesperson Alaine Griffin confirmed the existence of an investigation into the 2019 primary, but declined to comment on possible investigation of the 2023 Bridgeport elections.
A new complaint
Soon after the Sept. 12 primary, Gomes uploaded video footage of Geter-Pataky seemingly stuffing a ballot drop box with a stack of absentee ballots. The campaign later filed a lawsuit against Ganim, Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas and other city election officials. In the lawsuit, Gomes’s legal counsel subpoenaed Bridgeport police for the rest of the city security camera footage, which appeared to show 16 separate instances of Geter-Pataky and Eneida Martinez – a successful candidate for City Council this year – depositing stacks of ballots.
The footage of Ganim supporters at the drop box is the genesis for many of the 21 complaints that have since been accepted by SEEC. But earlier this week, Ganim said there are similar complaints against Gomes supporters, as well.
At the Tuesday press conference, Ganim acknowledged that people connected to his campaign engaged in “serious voting irregularities.” But he said Gomes needs to do the same, pointing to a new complaint by his fellow City Council leader, President Aidee Nieves, against two Gomes supporters.
Later that day, Ganim’s campaign manager, Rowena White, emailed a copy of the SEEC complaint and the referenced security camera footage to CT Examiner.NievesComplaint
In the Nov. 30 affidavit, Nieves – who was a candidate on the same row as Ganim in the primary – claimed that she looked through the rest of the footage submitted for Gomes’ lawsuit and found instances of Gomes supporters Maria Agueda and Maria Hernandez stuffing stacks of ballots. She said Agueda made 11 visits to the city boxes, but didn’t put a tally on City Council candidate Hernandez’s visits.
Nieves also alleged that Gomes and his counsel “deliberately” failed to highlight the clips of Agueda and Hernandez during the October evidentiary hearings.
“I feel the need to raise this with the Commission because the Gomes Campaign has gone to great lengths to throw allegations out at other people, while refusing to own up to and confront blatant absentee ballot abuse by their own agents, which could have very well cost me and my Council partner our election, as well as had an impact on other close elections around the city,” wrote Nieves.
But in a Thursday email to CT Examiner, Gomes denied claims by Ganim and Nieves of unlawful behavior by those associated with his campaign “based on the information that [he] has today.”
While he cannot know for certain what SEEC will decide, Gomes said Ganim and his supporters lack evidence against his camp.
“Results of investigations depend on evidence. We offered compelling and ‘shocking’ evidence of absentee ballot misconduct in open court where the testimony was subject to cross examination by the city’s lawyers and the evidence was presented for the court and the public to see,” Gomes said. “The Ganim campaign has not.”
Gomes said that during the lawsuit, attorneys served Agueda and Hernandez with subpoenas, but after the two voluntarily spoke to attorneys, he said, the subpoenas were withdrawn.
“The City defendants could have compelled their testimony and they voluntarily chose not to do so. The City defendants could have introduced any relevant video and also chose not to do so,” Gomes said. “In fact, they withdrew their defense that the Gomes campaign committed misconduct, and did not raise it in any post-trial briefing.”
Gomes said he believes the defendants must have concluded that testimony by Agueda and Hernandez would hurt their case.
In a Wednesday query, CT Examiner asked the Ganim campaign and Nieves how they knew that it was Agueda and Hernandez in the video clips, why the new complaint came almost a month after the lawsuit’s conclusion, and requested all 11 clips of Agueda at city drop boxes. White replied that Nieves would be best to answer the inquiry, but Nieves did not respond prior to publication.
Agueda and Martinez could not be reached for comment.