The State Elections Enforcement Commission on Wednesday voted to open a sprawling investigation into Bridgeport’s recent Democratic primary and to subpoena all of the absentee ballots that were cast in the contest between seven-term mayor Joe Ganim and his challenger, John Gomes.
The commission said it received at least four complaints from citizens and two referrals from the Bridgeport Police Department regarding possible misuse of absentee ballots, including the distribution of those ballots at senior housing complexes in the city.
The commission intends to subpoena the city of Bridgeport for lists of all of the absentee ballot applications that were distributed, all of the absentee ballots that were actually cast in the primary and the envelopes that those ballots arrived in prior to being counted on election night.
Many of those documents have also been requested as part of a lawsuit that was filed on Tuesday by Gomes, who is asking a judge to set aside the primary results and to initiate a new election.
“Since even before last Tuesday’s primary in Bridgeport, there has been a significant amount of attention drawn to allegations of impropriety surrounding the ballots, in particular the use or misuse of absentee ballots in that primary,” SEEC Chairman Stephen Penny said during the meeting. “These allegations have the effect of undermining the public’s trust in free and fair elections, and we take them very seriously.”
The commission said it will also investigate a video that appears to show a Ganim supporter depositing absentee ballots into a drop box outside the Bridgeport government center roughly a week before Election Day.
That widely disseminated video, which was reportedly captured on city surveillance cameras, was released publicly last weekend by the Gomes campaign. The CT Mirror has not confirmed the authenticity of the video.
The campaign alleges that the woman in the video is Wanda Geter-Pataky, a city employee, the vice chairwoman of Bridgeport’s Democratic Town Committee and a Ganim supporter.
The CT Mirror has been unable to reach Geter-Pataky via phone or Facebook messenger. But Ganim’s office confirmed on Wednesday that Geter-Pataky was placed on paid leave pending an investigation. That fact was first reported by the Connecticut Post on Tuesday.
Penny, an attorney who has served on the SEEC since 2013, said the commission is already working with law enforcement officials to determine what occurred with absentee ballots in Bridgeport. He did not specify which law enforcement agencies he was referring to.
“They (the complaints) will be thoroughly investigated. We will work and are already working with other law enforcement agencies to try and determine what the facts are,” Penny said. “And when we learn them, those facts will be brought to light. It is of paramount importance to this commission that Connecticut’s elections and primaries are conducted freely and fairly.”
The commission did not put a timeline on its newly opened investigation. In June, it completed a previous investigation of absentee ballot fraud and referred three people for possible criminal charges — including Geter-Pataky — to the Chief State’s Attorney’s office.
But that investigation started in 2019 and took years to complete. Some state officials, including Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas, have urged a quicker investigation this time, with an election coming up in November.
Ganim has denied any wrongdoing by his campaign and has promised a full investigation by police, including an examination of who may have leaked the security video to the Gomes campaign.
According to Penny, the Bridgeport Police referred a complaint about the video to the SEEC on Sept. 14, two days after Election Day. It was only later that the video was posted to the Gomes campaign Facebook page.
Connecticut law restricts who can return absentee ballots on behalf of voters. State statute says absentee ballots can be returned only by the ballot applicant, their family members, police officers, local election officials or someone who is directly caring for someone who receives an absentee ballot because they are ill or physically disabled.
Christine Bartlett-Josie, Gomes’ campaign manager, told the CT Mirror that the campaign received the video footage from someone after the primary, and they immediately filed a complaint with the State Elections Enforcement Commission.
Barlett-Josie and several other people tied to the Gomes campaign were also responsible for the four complaints that the SEEC accepted on Wednesday.
Some of those complaints contained specific references to Geter-Pataky. Others mentioned instances in which the Gomes campaign could not find voters at the addresses they reportedly submitted absentee ballots from.
Denise Solano, a candidate for the Bridgeport city council in the 133rd District, filed one of those complaints with the SEEC. In it, Solano alleges that while she was door-knocking, a woman named Elease Lowery told the Gomes team she had already voted.
That complaint further alleged that Lowery told her Wanda Geter-Pataky had already picked up her ballot.
“She always comes and fills it out for me, and actually I always call my neighbor and she fills it out for the both of us and takes them with her,” Lowery allegedly told Solano.
Kim McLaughlin, who volunteered for the Gomes campaign, also alleged she knocked on several doors expecting to find people who had returned absentee ballots to the town clerk only to find that the people living at those addresses did not know the voters in question.
McLaughlin said at three houses the people who reportedly voted absentee did not live at the addresses listed on those ballots.