State Board of Elections officials grilled at corruption commission hearing

Oct 30, 2013

New York State Board of Elections officials received a verbal drubbing from commissioners on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission, during a lengthy hearing over their failure to pursue complaints about campaign violations during the past several years.

During intense questioning by the commissioners, Board of Elections officials admitted that they failed to follow up on hundreds of complaints and potential election law violations over the past several years. And when they did pursue a very small number of cases, they appeared to bungle the probes.  

Commissioner Kathleen Hogan, who is also Warren County's district attorney, focused on one of the alleged violations. It involved an attempt by one unnamed individual to file 100 new campaign committees in a single day.

Hogan asked the board’s Deputy Enforcement Counsel William McCann what prompted him to more closely scrutinize the applications.  

“It was an abnormal submission to the board,” McCann said.

A subpoena was issued and it was discovered that some of the committees were not registered at actual banks, as required, but merely at ATM machines. Hogan asked McCann why then a letter from the board to the target of the investigation appeared to be worded to steer the case, and actually tip the suspected violator off on how to avoid a criminal prosecution.  Hogan read from the letter, which says in part, “while the board is troubled by these facts, it assumes that such submission is inadvertent, as intentional submission of documents containing false information to the board could result in a criminal referral."

“Is that what you do, you assume that there’s no intent, because who would intend to commit a crime?” Hogan asked.  

The audience tittered as McCann struggled to answer.

“Why did you write that?“ Hogan pursued.

McCann replied that the board was not going to refer every violation to a district attorney’s office.

Hogan asked McCann about another case, where multiple people were potentially illegally voting out of the same address. She wanted to know why, if the alleged violations happened in 2008, enforcement attorneys did not even bring it before the Board of Elections until 2010.  

McCann answered that staff members are often busy doing other things.

“These investigations, or these complaints, are in the context of whatever the particular attorney is doing in their normal responsibilities before the board,” McCann said.

McCann told Hogan that the case was ultimately closed, because the box of files concerning the case was lost during an office move.

In their defense, the Board of Elections officials said they did not have enough staff to complete the investigations and that in recent years, the governor’s budget division has not heeded their requests for new hires.

Commissioner Kathleen Rice, who is the Nassau County D.A., and who partnered with Hogan throughout the questioning, said the board received funds in 2007 from then Gov. Eliot Spitzer to hire up to 21 people to carry out probes. She asked McCann and the other officials why the board never hired anyone.

“Why didn’t you jump on it?” Rice asked.

Board of Elections Co-Executive Cirector Robert Brehm said they worked diligently to fill the positions, but that no one anticipated the fiscal crisis.

“This was before the fiscal crisis,” Rice said.

The Board of Elections officials were asked why they did not ask the state police for help, if they were shorthanded. Co-executive director Robert Brehm answered that they did not have the resources to even figure out which cases would be appropriate for the police to pursue.

Finally, an exasperated D.A. Hogan pointed out that a former investigator told the commission during a deposition that he was not given anything to do.

“You had an investigator sitting at his computer, asking for you for work, and playing solitaire and studying his bible verses because you refused to give him work,” Hogan said. “Isn’t it true that you didn’t want to look at these with a critical eye?”

“No,” McCann answered.

“Because that’s what it looks like,” Hogan said.

Throughout the hearing, the state Board of Elections officials served as whipping boys for what the Moreland commissioners and critics say is a dysfunctional oversight agency. The Board of Elections is jointly controlled by the state’s two major political parties.  

McCann, the board’s staff attorney, complained commissioners were painting the board in an unfair light.

Board of Elections officials say while they have the authority to pursue investigations, they have never been organized as a criminal investigative unit. McCann says they view themselves more as a compliance agency. He says most of the complaints and violations involve technical errors, like failure to file on time, not high crimes and misdemeanors.