LITTLE VALLEY — State Supreme Court Judge Dennis E. Ward reserved decision Monday on challenges to Cattaraugus County Conservative and Independence Party authorizations over allegations of election fraud.
The Supreme Court justice is expected to rule later this week, possibly as early as Thursday. He advised attorneys in the case to email summations of their arguments by today.
The issue goes beyond specific candidates mentioned in the lawsuits. Since all candidates the Conservative and Independence parties cross endorsed were listed on the same authorization form, the lawsuits sought to throw all those candidates off the ballot.
The first witnesses in the two-day hearing testified Monday on the second day of the hearing. They included George Schneider Jr., a member of the Cattaraugus County Conservative Party Committee; Olean Common Council President John Crawford who is running for County Legislature; former Republican Election Commissioner Michael Brisky; and Conservative Party Secretary Alan Nephew.
Schneider, the Lyndon highway superintendent, said he was one of six Conservative Party committee members to attend a March 2 meeting to authorize candidates who were members of other parties to run on the Conservative line. He told attorney Edward Sundquist, who represented Conservative party member William Bothwell of Olean, that the committee had authorized Crawford, not County Legislator Frank Higgins, R-Olean.
Schneider also testified that the Conservative Committee had not authorized Donna Vickman to run for a vacancy on the Farmersville Town Board at the March 2 meeting as the Conservative Party indicated.
“We did not have her name,” he said. The vacancy did not exist before the March 18 resignation of Andrew J. Warner.
Crawford testified that he had been notified initially by Brisky that he had the Conservative endorsement. Crawford said that because he was told after March 2 that he had received the Conservative endorsement, Crawford then requested from Brisky an acceptance form for the Conservative line.
Crawford said he had seen a Conservative petition for the County Legislature in District 8, the city of Olean, with the names of Kelly Andreano, Brian George and himself. He said he also saw petitions — which were dated later in the month — that listed Higgins’ name in place of Crawford’s own name. Per state election law, one of the two petitions would not be authorized.
When a list of candidates came out in the newspaper, Crawford said he was surprised to see he did not have Conservative endorsement. He tried first to call party officials, but got no reply. Then he called Brisky.
Eric Firkel — the former county attorney who resigned last month to run for County Legislature, who was representing himself and Conservative Party leaders — asked Crawford what Brisky had told him about who had received the Conservative authorization.
“Mr. Brisky told me it was an honest mistake,” Crawford replied. He added Brisky had earlier told him he’d received the Conservative endorsement.
After court had adjourned, Crawford said he asked Brisky point blank whether he got the Conservative endorsement. “He said yes.”
Brisky was called to testify by Jeff Bochiechio, who is representing acting Republican Election Commissioner Cortney Spittler. “I may have told (Crawford) there might have been a mistake,” Brisky said. When asked if he had seen petitions with Crawford’s name on them, Brisky replied, “No.”
Under cross examination by Jerome Schad, who represents Democratic Election Commissioner Kevin Burleson, Brisky said he didn’t recall if he told Crawford he’d received the Conservative endorsement.
“There might have been a mistake. There might have been two petitions out there. I don’t remember exactly,” he said.
Schad asked Brisky what his role as election commissioner was.
Ward interrupted, saying, “The theory here is pretty simple — it’s not rocket science. We’re dancing around the issue. I’m waiting, I’m waiting, I’m waiting.”
Sundquist asked Brisky if he knew Crawford was not authorized by the Conservative Party when he spoke to him.
“Yes,” Brisky replied.
“Have you ever been an agent of the Conservative Party?” asked Sundquist.
“No,” Brisky said.
“Did you prepare designating petitions for the Conservative Party?” Sundquist asked.
“Yes,” said Brisky.
“Did the Conservative Party ask you to prepare a petition with Crawford’s name?” Sundquist asked.
“Yes,” said Brisky.
“Did they ask you to remove his (Crawford’s) name?” the lawyer asked.
“No,” Brisky said. “They asked me to create another one (petition) after March 2.”
Ward commented he thought the proceedings were getting “dicey.”
Brisky told attorney Bochiechio that he spoke to Crawford about the authorization after working hours as an individual, not in his capacity as commissioner.
Nephew, the Conservative Party secretary, told Firkel that Higgins had won the authorization March 2 with 18 votes, compared to 14 cast for Crawford.
“Was there any confusion as to who obtained Conservative endorsements?” Firkel asked.
“No,” replied Nephew.
Nephew said three resolutions were approved at the March 2 meeting in Ellicottville, including one to permit the chairman and secretary to make late nominations and substitutions.
“Did you believe you were acting properly?” Firkel asked.
Yes,” replied Nephew.
Ward questioned the legal status of authorizing party officials to make changes after the March 2 meeting.
Subsequently, Nephew said, Vickman was authorized to run on the Conservative line on March 30. It was, however, attached to the March 2 meeting minutes.
Ward again expressed disappointment that the petitioners, Bothwell, a Conservative, and Sondra J. Augostini of the Independence Party, were not in court to testify.
Bochiechio called the show cause orders “invalid” and “fraudulent.” There were also issues regarding service of dozens of candidates. He said there was “no evidence of fraud. There was a mistake as to one candidate.” He renewed his motion to dismiss the lawsuits.
Ginger Schroder, an attorney and candidate for county legislature who was also representing Conservative Party officials, said, “Neither petitioner appeared. None of this has been proven. None of it. They are alleging fraud. They need to be put on the stand and cross examined.”
Ward said there had been testimony to problems with multiple candidate authorizations.
“I think you can find fraud,” said Schad.
Ward reserved decision in the two lawsuits, but promised a decision later in the week.