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Elections officials blast court complaint over Jennifer Ciccone’s loss in Struthers judicial race

YOUNGSTOWN — Mahoning County Board of Elections officials strongly refute and reject claims in a court complaint filed by supporters of Jennifer J. Ciccone, who lost the Struthers Municipal Court race by 10.28%, that there “was improper, irregular and illegal conduct” in that election.

“It’s disgusting, it’s putrid, it’s false and this happens when you have a person leading the Republican Party who is an election denier,” meaning Donald Trump, David Betras, board chairman, said in response to the complaint that asks the 7th District Court of Appeals to nullify the judicial race.

Board Director Tom McCabe, who also is the county Republican Party chairman, said of Ciccone, a fellow Republican, “In my 25 years here, I’ve never seen a candidate lose by as much as she did and still contest the election. Looking at her (court) complaint, this filing is one of the worst — if not the worst — I’ve ever seen when it comes to election contests. There’s no specifics.”

He added: “It’s part of this whole election denial thing. She got outworked, outspent and, speaking as party chairman, it was a poorly run campaign and she was a poor candidate.”

The results of the Nov. 7 election, certified Nov. 16 by the board, had James Melone, a Mahoning County Common Pleas Court magistrate, with 7,390 votes to 6,012 for Ciccone, who quickly was appointed by Gov. Mike DeWine, a fellow Republican, to fill the vacant seat on Sept. 29, effective Oct. 6.

Regarding the complaint, Betras, who is an attorney and a former county Democratic Party chairman,said: “It’s completely false. I unequivocally 100% reject it. I’m disturbed and disgusted by the baseless claims. I’m looking forward to the prosecutor tearing apart every one of her spurious claims.”

Ciccone, whose term is up Dec. 31, didn’t file the complaint herself though she has questioned the results since her defeat.

Instead, Michael P. Ciccone, an attorney who isn’t related to the candidate, filed the court claim on behalf of 28 voters in the Struthers Municipal Court jurisdiction.

Calls to the attorney and to the candidate on Monday weren’t returned.

Melone declined Monday to comment because as a sitting judicial officer he didn’t believe it was appropriate to comment on pending litigation.

McCabe said Jennifer J. Ciccone filed a lengthy records request including about 300 different absentee ballots and the tapes of votes posted at polling locations at the end of the election on Nov. 7. She was given more than 600 documents based on her requests, McCabe said.

COMPLAINT DETAILS

The complaint contends the board of elections failed to properly train those involved with the election, “ballots were not properly counted,” “all ballots were not counted,” there was “improper handling of absentee ballots commonly known as ‘ballot harvesting,'” “noneligible voters” were permitted to vote, ballots cast for Ciccone “were rejected or refused without just cause and right to do so and contrary to law,” “ballots were counted in favor of” Melone that “should have been counted in favor of” Ciccone, ballots weren’t counted, transported and stored “in accordance with law,” and Melone “did not receive the majority of votes cast in the election.”

The complaint contends “the true results of the election cannot be ascertained,” and “the errors, mistakes and irregularities in the votes by electors effected enough of the election, thus rendering the results incorrect, undeterminable and void.”

Ciccone lost by 1,378 votes, which is 10.28%.

The complaint seeks to declare the election void and “deem that a vacancy exists for the position of judge of Struthers Municipal Court for the remainder of the term set to commence Jan. 1, 2024.”

Betras blamed the candidate, saying: “I’m repulsed that she would claim we don’t run clean elections. She’s putting into the veins of Mahoning County that we’re not following the law.”

ATTORNEY CRITICIZED

As for Michael P. Ciccone, the attorney who filed the court complaint, Betras said: “I don’t know what kind of acid that person is taking, but lawyers should watch when they make spurious claims. He’s lying to the court. He should know what happens to other lawyers who make false claims. This is nothing but a big bucket of lies and bulls—.”

McCabe said the complaint is “so vague. There’s not much I can look into. This does a great disservice to the whole process.”

Based on the complaint, McCabe said he would “never hire” Michael P. Ciccone.

Regarding Jennifer Ciccone, McCabe said: “Everything pointed to her losing that race based on her candidacy and her campaign.”

McCabe said many of the electors listed in the court complaint are part of a “local patriots group, who are election deniers. It’s sad when a big-time losing candidate can’t admit defeat.”

Asked about Trump being an election denier, McCabe said losing Democratic presidential candidates for years have refused to concede.

“Trump didn’t lose by that much” in 2020 while Ciccone “lost by 10%,” McCabe said.

“This is a garbage filing,” he said.

The court complaint states there was no recount of the votes.

McCabe said automatic recounts are held when the margin is no more than 0.5 of a percent. But candidates can pay for recounts, he said.

“If she was that concerned they should have paid for a hand recount in front of her and her observers,” McCabe said. “There was no recount because you didn’t request one. The first thing I’d do as a candidate is request a recount.”

County Prosecutor Gina DeGenova said her office has recused itself from the case and is going to hire outside legal counsel. DeGenova said she didn’t want any appearance of impropriety raised because she gave money to Melone’s campaign and vice versa, and Jennifer Ciccone is the victim in a case the office is prosecuting in which an East Liverpool man is accused of assault for allegedly hitting her with his car.

The Mahoning County Democratic Party said Monday it plans to file a complaint with the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct “as a result of the outlandish and disturbing attempt to overthrow the Struthers Municipal Court race.”

The party pointed out since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection that sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, a number of attorneys were disbarred “for what the Ciccone team is trying to do in this filing.”

Chairman Chris Anderson said: “Despite what some may believe, it is not OK for attorneys to lie in official court filings. So we’ll be filing a complaint with the board of professional conduct against the attorney that filed this and any other attorney that attempts to subvert the will of the voters by wasting the court’s time.”

The party also will file a friend of the court brief with the 7th District asking it “to reject this election denialism that we’re seeing become the new normal from MAGA extremists,” Anderson said.

He added: “This is not about Republican or Democrat, this is about right and wrong. When failed candidates claim that an election was rigged or stolen because they don’t like the outcome, it sows seeds of doubt into the entire democratic process and that is dangerous and irresponsible.”

CICCONE’S APPOINTMENT

DeWine’s Sept. 29 announcement that he was appointing Ciccone, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary for the seat, came just four days after she acknowledged she was approached by Columbiana County Republican Party Chairman Dave Johnson asking if she’d be interested in the appointment.

It was an unusual move for DeWine as his office had indicated when it received a resignation letter from then-Judge Dominic R. Leone III on Sept. 19 that the governor would not appoint a replacement.

Leone’s resignation was effective Sept. 29.

He resigned more than four months after losing the Democratic primary for the seat by 14.6% to Melone.

While Melone won the Democratic primary and Ciccone ran unopposed for the Republican nomination, municipal court judges in Ohio run in the general election without party affiliation.

McCabe and Johnson sent letters to DeWine in support of appointing Ciccone.

But McCabe said Monday: “I questioned from the beginning whether she should have been appointed.”

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