State suggests internal probe of elections board
By DAVID SKOLNICK
Responding to complaints from the Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman about the board of elections, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner “strongly” suggests the board “undertake an examination and/or investigation of the issues raised” about the agency’s operations.
In a letter sent late Friday afternoon to Mahoning Democratic Chairman David Betras, the board’s four members, the director and deputy director, Brunner wrote: “I am urging them to expeditiously undertake the investigation you have requested so as to ensure and maintain public confidence in the election process in Mahoning County.”
Betras wrote Brunner, a Democrat, two times last week asking that she investigate the operations of the board of elections. But in her letter, Brunner wrote that “it is not appropriate for the secretary of state to intervene at this time.”
On Aug. 30, Betras wrote Brunner asking her office investigate the board for disqualifying some signatures that it later validated on nominating petitions for ex-U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., running as an independent candidate for the 17th Congressional District seat.
On Sept. 3, Betras again wrote Brunner asking her to investigate why nearly a year after the elections board voted to temporarily suspend its director, Thomas McCabe, and a clerk, Danielle O’Neill, for failing to follow an internal office policy that neither has served the suspensions.
Though Brunner declined to conduct the investigations, Betras said he was satisfied with her decision to recommend the board look into the issues.
Board President Robert Wasko, a Democrat, couldn’t be reached late Friday by The Vindicator to comment.
Board Vice President Mark Munroe, also the county Republican Party chairman, said nothing improper was done by the board or its employees, and there is next to nothing to investigate.
Traficant supporters persuaded the Mahoning board to validate 31 signatures it had disqualified, which allowed him to qualify as a candidate.
“Any time something is that close, there’s room for controversy,” Munroe said. “The board was willing to go the extra mile to resolve the issue to everyone’s satisfaction. We’re willing to review office procedures.”
The board gave O’Neill a five-day suspension without pay for failing to follow an internal office policy in October 2009 to send ballot language to those with tax issues on the November 2009 ballot. McCabe was given a three-day suspension for failing to catch the mistake.
The board delayed the suspensions because of a criminal investigation into the matter by the sheriff’s office, Munroe said. The investigation found no wrongdoing and was wrapped up in October 2009, but the sheriff’s office never notified the board.
It wasn’t until last week that Sheriff Randall Wellington said the investigation ended last October.
Munroe said “unfound-ed charges” such as criticizing the board for the Traficant signatures and an investigation by the sheriff that turned up nothing “erodes public confidence in the election system.”
Munroe said the board will revisit the suspensions but wants to know why the sheriff’s office has provided no documentation regarding the criminal investigation.