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Arrest "Imminent" in Ballot Tampering Investigation

6:10 PM, Oct 24, 2011   |    comments
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Video: Arrest "Imminent" in Ballot Tampering Probe

Absentee Ballot Sent By Viewer Who Says A Vote Was Already Marked

BUFFALO, NY - The Erie County Sheriff's Office predicts an arrest is "imminent" in a possible ballot tampering case at the Erie County Erie County Board of Elections.

Elections Commissioners this week concluded one or more of their own employees may have engaged in the tampering of some absentee ballots sent out last week, and The Erie County Sheriff's Department began investigating the matter.

Last week, a viewer faxed 2 On Your Side a copy of what she claims was the absentee ballot she received in the mail, and which appeared to been already marked with a vote for Chris Collins for County Executive.

When we first took her concern to Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph Mohr, he confirmed she wasn't alone.

"We have received four phone calls from one municipality (Lackawanna) that said, 'there seems to be a problem with my absentee ballot'," Mohr told WGRZ-TV last Friday.

Since then, however, the number of ballots brought to Mohr's attention and which appeared to have been similarly marked has grown to at least 10.

Mohr says the 10,000 absentee ballots sent out for this year's vote, were mailed almost the same day they were printed by the Board of Elections, and at all times were in the care and custody of a bi-partisan group of employees.

According to Democratic Elections official Dennis Ward, the sheriff's office interviewed multiple elections employees Thursday, and brought a fingerprinting expert to the board office.

In a statement Friday, Undersheriff mark Wipperman wrote:

"Sheriff's Office investigators working on this case have been able to narrow down a small list of suspects, all of which work for the Board of Elections. Several interviews have been conducted and some valuable evidence has been located and secured.  The Sheriff's Office is confident that once the evidence is professionally analyzed, an arrest will be imminent."

Wipperman also emphasized that neither Collins nor his Democratic opponent, Mark Poloncarz, had anything to do with the incident.

"No campaign has any access to these ballots," said Mohr.

But while the odds of someone being able to tamper with the ballots without being noticed would have appeared to have been long, Mohr and Ward -- after having ruled out printer errors or the off chance that a batch of test ballots were sent out by mistake - now say it appears more likely to have been an "inside job".

"That would seem to be the only remaining possibility, yes ...which be very disappointing news," said Ward.

Ward says all of the suspect ballots returned by voters appear to have been marked with the same blue ink. "They all appear to have been marked by the same individual or individuals," Ward said.

Earlier in the week, Poloncarz appeared to point the finger at supporters of Collins, posting on Twitter, "Trickery to try to cancel votes for me at its worst: Ballots sent to absentees were marked for Collins." Poloncarz was even more specific on his Facebook page, posting a message indicating the Collins team "will do anything, including rigging ballots to win this election...."

Poloncarz appeared to back off from the accusation Friday, releasing a statement that called for a "swift prosecution... Whether it is a Democrat or Republican who is at fault."

"This is potentially a criminal matter and Commissioner Mohr and I also believe it would be better to have an outside entity, such as the Sheriff's Department, do this rather than us convening our own investigation because we would essentially be investigating ourselves and there would be questions then arising from that," Ward said.

In the meantime, Mohr says anyone who receives what appears to be a marked ballot should promptly return it to the Board of Elections.

"Send us back the ballot and we'll re-issue a new one and we'll be able to make sure they are able to cast their vote," Mohr said.

Click on the video player to watch our story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Andy DeSantis.

Click here to read Dave McKinley's latest blog.

WGRZ-TV, wgrz.com

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