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MERCER COUNTY Official: no crime in vote fiasco



Published: Wed, January 12, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The district attorney said he will not prosecute the former elections director.

MERCER, Pa. -- Mercer County District Attorney James Epstein told the Independent Election Committee on Monday that he and Sheriff William Romine Jr. agree there was no criminal intent behind the Nov. 2 general election fiasco.

The problems resulted instead, they concluded, from poor planning, overconfidence, a lack of oversight and evasion of responsibility before the election. They didn't elaborate.

However, Epstein said he will not prosecute former Elections Director Bill Bennington because there is no evidence of any criminal intent on his part. He said Bennington's lack of a motive and ready acceptance of responsibility for the problems "is not consistent" with any criminal intent to deprive voters of their rights.

While Bennington's professional reputation "was lost Nov. 2," his reputation for personal integrity "is unquestioned," Epstein said.

"I've known Jim Bennington for a long time," Epstein said. "He's headstrong and not very personable." He added has not known Bennington to lie.

No intent

Epstein said that though there were numerous violations of the election code committed by precinct workers, they were committed out of ignorance, not any intention to violate voters' rights. He added that the workers dealt with broken machines and a lack of paper ballots as well as they could and did their best "to effectuate voting, not suppress it."

Noting that violations of the election code must be intentional to be criminal, Epstein added, "I will not prosecute someone acting in good faith."

Voting machines malfunctioned in several precincts in the Farrell area on Election Day, and there were insufficient paper ballots available. In some cases, the wrong paper ballots were on hand in precincts. Also, there was an unusually large number of voters who didn't cast a ballot in the presidential race.

Epstein said an investigation with subpoena powers could be conducted if Mercer County President Judge Francis Fornelli impaneled an investigative grand jury. But to do that, Epstein would have to present evidence of criminal action.

As an alternative, Epstein could refer the matter to the state attorney general's permanent investigatory grand jury in Pittsburgh. But Epstein said there is no basis for such a referral.

Under Pennsylvania law, he said, "official incompetence that doesn't rise to the level of criminality doesn't have a place to go."

Committee Chairman Dr. Michael Coulter told committee members he will have a preliminary draft report on the election problems ready when the committee next meets, at 4 p.m. Tuesday. An additional meeting was also set for 4 p.m. Jan. 25, with tentative release of a final report set for 3:30 p.m. Jan. 31 at the courthouse.




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