Sen. Harding: “What corruption reforms have been made?”

February 29, 2024

Election probes, reforms linger after Bridgeport mayoral race

By Brian Lockhart

Hearst CT

BRIDGEPORT — Connecticut’s largest municipality finally has a mayor for the next four years.

But even as Tuesday marked the end of an unusually long campaign to run Bridgeport, the absentee ballot scandal that resulted in four mayoral elections and made national and international news will reverberate for several months. It has resulted in over 30 related local and state probes and simultaneous efforts to have the legislature and governor enact voting reforms.

This has been a prolonged mayoral contest thanks to an absentee ballot scandal stemming from the Sept. 12 Democratic primary between Ganim and Gomes that resulted in Superior Court Judge William Clark ordering a new primary Jan. 23 and a new general election.

On Wednesday, hours after Ganim claimed a final decisive victory over rival John Gomes, state Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s government administration and elections committee, said some unspecified election reform proposals will be considered in the current legislative session. The legislature convened in Hartford Feb. 7 and adjourns May 8.

“One hundred percent there will be reforms heard in the government administration and elections committee based on issues that have arisen in Bridgeport,” Blumenthal said.

He said it was too early to offer details, but conversations are being had with Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas’ office.

“Whatever reforms we pursue are going to balance on the one hand avoiding disenfranchising anyone or impeding anyone’s access while also taking common sense measures to ensure that any gaps in our laws are filled to prevent the sorts of actions that were alleged here (in Bridgeport),” he said.

Blumenthal said he had followed the court case, in which Clark in his ruling concluded Ganim supporters Eneida Martinez and Wanda Geter-Pataky had made multiple ballot drops.

“They appear to be conscious acts with a partisan purpose that violates the mandatory requirements of how absentee ballots are supposed to be handled or delivered,” the judge stated. “The mishandling of absentee ballots by Ms. Geter-Pataky and Ms. Martinez in violation of (state law) renders those ballots so mishandled, incapable of being validly cast and thus incapable of being counted.”

It is not unusual for the legislature to take a few years to act on particular items, especially controversial ones.

“I would certainly like to see at least some reforms passed into law this session,” Blumenthal said. “There are some proposals I think can be fairly quickly evaluated. …

There are others that are kind of bigger, overarching ideas that may require more sustained attention.”

Tara Chozet, spokesperson for Thomas, confirmed in a statement that reforms were a priority this session.

“We are working on potential reforms to tighten guidelines around (absentee ballot) drop boxes, the periods of availability of absentee ballot applications, and the collection of absentee ballots from drop boxes,” she said. “There is a gray area on where our authority ends and the state Election Enforcement Commission’s begins, so we will also be working with the legislature on ways to close this gap.”

Republicans, including as far up the ladder as former President Donald Trump, have criticized the situation in Democrat-dominated Bridgeport. And in a joint statement late Tuesday, Connecticut Senate Republican Leader Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, and Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, a ranking member of the government administration committee, questioned whether there is truly a will in Connecticut to enact change.

“Do majority Connecticut Democrats think this embarrassing, national headline-grabbing, ballot-stuffing fiasco is going away? Because it isn’t,” the pair said. “Election number four in Bridgeport is in the books, but what corruption reforms have been made? What future reforms will be made to strengthen Connecticut’s election integrity policies? We see absolutely none. Zero. And why is that? Democrats control everything at the State Capitol.”

Gomes, a Democrat who ran against Ganim in the November general election and Tuesday’s as an Independent, during his concession speech pledged “the movement’s not over” and in the immediate future he and his supporters need to turn their efforts toward changing election laws.

“We’ve got to talk to Hartford,” he said. “We need to bring some true, strong reforms to the absentee process.”

While legislators consider what to do, the State Elections Enforcement Commission has, as of Wednesday, a total of 30 active cases involving Bridgeport opened since the September mayoral primary here. And while they include the absentee ballot issues at the heart of Gomes’ court case, some complaints also target a few of his allies.
A spokesman for the SEEC declined to provide further comment, but in December Michael Brandi, its executive director and general counsel, said, “Collectively, it is the biggest investigation this agency has ever undertaken. All of our enforcement resources are being dedicated to the investigation.”

Ganim, Gomes and some of their respective allies, however, have continually lamented the months and even years it can take for the commission and its staff to wrap-up their work.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing has been done,” Gomes complained to his supporters Tuesday.

Last June, for example, the SEEC concluded a probe into Bridgeport’s 2019 Democratic primary. Ganim’s challenger at the time, state Sen. Marilyn Moore and her supporters had also alleged absentee ballot abuse, but, unlike Gomes’ lawsuit, a similar court action to throw out the results failed.

After a nearly four-year investigation, the SEEC forwarded “evidence of possible criminal violations undertaken” by three Ganim supporters, Geter-Pataky included, to the office of Chief State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin. On Wednesday Griffin’s office confirmed that case remains pending.

Meanwhile there are some municipal investigations underway too. Geter-Pataky, who besides helping to run Bridgeport’s Democratic Party was the greeter in the lobby of the downtown government center, remains on paid administrative leave pending a personnel probe of her absentee ballot actions. The city in January hired an outside New Haven-based labor attorney, William Ryan, to take over that review.

And just last week Ganim’s administration said it was planning on engaging an unidentified digital forensics expert to help determine who, without authorization, released the municipal security videos of Geter-Pataky and Martinez last September.

While Martinez these past few months has remained active in politics in part because of her seat on the council, Geter-Pataky, according to the Ganim campaign, had been staying on the sidelines. But on Tuesday night she was celebrating at the mayor’s post-election party behind dark sunglasses and wearing a red hat with the word “queen” on it in big white letters. She did not answer questions from the press.

Ganim, who has said he would support some legislative election reforms, in a September interview called the absentee ballot controversy a “black eye” for the city.

On Wednesday he said he is not trying to “minimize the (absentee ballot) irregularities or pooh pooh the story and what happened” but believes it is time for “turning the page forward” and that there will not be a lasting impact on Bridgeport’s image.

“I think we’re beyond that,” he said. “I think our bright lights shine that much brighter than some of the things that are less flattering.”
And regardless, he has a feeling that, with the four elections now concluded and voters having again chosen him to lead Bridgeport, attention will turn elsewhere.

“I would say to people when their name’s in the paper … I go to them, ‘Do you remember three days ago what was in the paper?’ ” he said.