Months before Bridgeport’s Sept. 12 Democratic primary erupted into a lawsuit, investigations and accusations of fraud, several city officials alleged that political supporters of Mayor Joe Ganim were attempting to access information from a rental rebate program to target potential voters.
Emails obtained by The Connecticut Mirror show Rosemary Wong, who ran Bridgeport’s rental rebate program for years, initially resisted plans to give Marie Heller and Wanda Geter-Pataky — two members of the city’s Democratic Town Committee — access to data that included personal information for elderly and disabled residents in the city.
But Wong was eventually ordered by her boss, former Bridgeport Health Director Ebony Jackson-Shaheed, to drop those objections and provide the two women with the information they were seeking, documents show.
“Please grant Marie Heller access to the renters’ rebate portal so that she may assist with the program, effective immediately,” Jackson-Shaheed wrote in an email on April 4. “Also please provide Wanda at the front desk with the renters’ rebate appointment schedule as previously done.”
The CT Mirror could not independently confirm whether Heller, Geter-Pataky or anyone else used the renters’ rebate program for any campaign-related purpose in the leadup to the primary between Ganim and his Democratic challenger John Gomes. But documents show that city workers and politicians had concerns.
Heller, who serves as the director of the Bridgeport Department of Aging and as treasurer for the Democratic Town Committee, could not be reached for comment. Her husband told the CT Mirror on Friday that she is out of the country and that he would forward e-mailed questions to her.
Geter-Pataky, who serves as the vice chair of the Democratic Town Committee and is now at the center of an investigation into allegations of ballot harvesting, did not respond to messages sent to her via Facebook messenger.
When reached by the CT Mirror, Ganim referred questions to his city staff.
Tiadora Josef, Bridgeport’s director of communications, said Friday that nobody ever used the data collected as part of the renters’ rebate program for political purposes.
Josef said Heller was provided access to the program as an administrator because she worked under the health department. And, she said, Geter-Pataky was provided with a list of applicants who were showing up to the government center for “security and safety issues so that way we can help direct the applicant on where to go to the building.”
“That explanation does not inspire confidence that this was a legitimate use of private information of elderly and handicapped renters,” said William Bloss, an attorney representing the Gomes campaign in their lawsuits challenging the results of the primary election.
“Due to the large numbers of the senior population and those who are eligible for the renter’s rebate program within the timeframe of April 1st to October 1st the City found it necessary to provide additional assistance for applications to be processed,” Josef said. “This year alone, we had over 3,000 seniors were assisted by city agents to apply for the program.”
“It is very unfortunate that the Gomes campaign along with their operatives or supporters like Wong are casting smoke to cause voters to question the dedication of an employee and her long legacy of work with seniors in our city,” said Rowena White, a spokesperson for the Ganim campaign.
The dispute over who should have access to the renters’ rebate program highlights the highly politicized environment that existed in Bridgeport city hall in advance of this year’s Democratic mayoral primary and the concerns that exist in the city about political campaigns using government assistance programs to target absentee voters.
Courting absentee voters has become a big part of winning local elections in Bridgeport, and campaigns often recruit teams of people to help them win the so-called absentee “ballot chase.”
Officials with the Gomes campaign have alleged that several voters they interacted with mentioned that the rental assistance program and Section 8 housing vouchers were discussed by Ganim campaign workers while they were passing out absentee ballot applications.
Christine Bartlett-Josie, Gomes’s campaign manager, said she continued to hear similar stories throughout the primary campaign and included some of those accusations in complaints that were recently filed with the SEEC.
Gomes told the CT Mirror on Friday that he was disturbed by the possibility that Ganim supporters may have used a state-funded program for the “most vulnerable populations in Bridgeport” to rally absentee votes. And he said the issue should be investigated further.
The renters’ rebate program is a statewide public assistance program that cuts checks to low-income seniors and individuals with disabilities to offset their housing costs.
Municipalities submit the applications for the program to the state Office of Policy and Management, which is responsible for maintaining a portal with applicant information and distributing money to eligible households and individuals.
Last year, more than $24.4 million was paid statewide to qualified renters, according to OPM data, including 3,379 applicants in Bridgeport who received a combined $1.8 million in benefits.
The CT Mirror requested the names of those Bridgeport residents from OPM this week in an attempt to compare the program applicants to people who cast absentee ballots in last week’s primary. But the state agency on Friday denied that request, arguing that state law exempts the renters’ rebate program information from disclosure.
The application process for the program requires people to submit personal information such as Social Security numbers, copies of tax returns and, in some cases, medical records. Only the person directing the program in each municipality can access the portal or grant someone else access to it.
Wong said her concern, as the director of the program in Bridgeport, was that Geter-Pataky and Heller, both of whom supported Ganim’s reelection bid, could use the state-funded rebate program to identify city residents who were eligible for absentee ballots and to solicit their votes.
“I was worried about private information leaking out to people who are not going to do the right thing,” Wong told the CT Mirror this week. “I felt [releasing the information] was not the right thing to do.”
Wong was not the only person who voiced concerns that Heller and Geter-Pataky might seek to use the renters’ rebate data for political purposes.
Bridgeport City Councilwoman Maria Pereira, a political opponent of Ganim, lodged similar complaints with both city staff and officials with OPM earlier this spring.
In an email, Pereira told Jackson-Shaheed, the former city health director, that Ganim supporters wanted access to the names, phone numbers and addresses of elderly and disabled applicants to the renter rebate program so they could “get back in touch with these vulnerable seniors to order them absentee ballots for Mayor Ganim’s reelection bid.”
The same day, Pereira reiterated those concerns in an email to Patrick Sullivan, an OPM employee.
“I am deeply concerned about the city employees/individuals being provided with access to incredibly sensitive information of thousands of vulnerable seniors up to and including social security numbers,” she wrote to OPM on April 12. “In my over 3 years as a city councilwoman, I have never seen the renters rebate program being handled the way it is being handled right now.”
“I am absolutely confident the renter rebate program is being politicized as Mayor Ganim is facing three democratic challengers in the September 12th Primary,” Pereira added. “None of this is a coincidence.”
Jackson-Shaheed responded to Pereira’s concerns by informing her that she forwarded her complaint and other information to the Bridgeport city attorney’s office for review.
And OPM responded to Pereira’s allegations in a formal letter that was drafted by an agency attorney, Kara Murphy.
In the letter, Murphy acknowledged that the portal used for the renters’ rebate program contained personal information for each applicant. But she told Pereira that OPM had no way to monitor who was using the portal, or for what purpose they were accessing the information.
“If city employees are allegedly misusing information contained on the applications to obtain absentee ballot applications, OPM would not have knowledge of or possess any evidence of this misuse,” Murphy wrote.
OPM confirmed that Heller was provided with a temporary login that would allow her to access the program data from April to September of this year. But Murphy told Pereira that Geter-Pataky was not provided with the same login credentials.
“Wanda Geter has not been provided access to the portal,” Murphy wrote in the letter. “If any authorized official has inappropriately provided their portal access credentials to Ms. Geter or other city employees to sign in under their credentials, OPM does not have knowledge of or possess any evidence of this type of activity.”
Murphy also told Pereira that the complaint was better suited to the State Elections Enforcement Commission, which is responsible for policing Connecticut’s election laws.
Murphy said OPM officials contacted Michael Brandi, the SEEC’s executive director, about Pereira’s complaint, but Brandi said the SEEC needed Pereira to submit a complaint directly to the commission in order for it to be taken up and investigated.
Pereira, who is now under investigation herself for allegedly entering a Bridgeport resident’s apartment in the leadup to the primary, told the CT Mirror that she did not follow through on the advice that OPM provided.
“I didn’t send it (complaint to SEEC) because I was in the midst of my own campaign and didn’t have the time to do it,” Pereira said Friday.
Pereira said she was frustrated that city officials in charge of the renter rebate program were not answering her questions.
“Why was there any reason for these people to be allowed access to such sensitive data about our senior citizens?” Pereira said.
Jackson-Shaheed, who stepped down from her job in Bridgeport in late April to become the Health Director in Hartford, declined to answer questions about the earlier dispute over the renters’ rebate program.
“I currently work for the City of Hartford, and do not have any comment regarding my previous employment,” she said.
Geter-Pataky is now at the center of a lawsuit filed by the Gomes campaign. She is also under scrutiny by investigators with the State Elections Enforcement Commission, which is probing alleged absentee ballot fraud in the mayoral primary that Ganim unofficially won by 251 votes.
The SEEC is in possession of surveillance footage that allegedly shows Geter-Pataky, who serves as the vice chair of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee, delivering handfuls of absentee ballots into a drop box outside the government center roughly a week before the primary.
The legal team representing Gomes intends to call Geter-Pataky to the stand at a hearing on Monday to testify about her handling of absentee ballots ahead of the primary.
Bloss, the Gomes campaign’s attorney, said the allegations of potential misuse of the renters’ rebate program is another element that the campaign may need to investigate.
“This is yet another issue that must be carefully reviewed to determine if any actions violated state or local election or ethics rules,” Bloss said. “Until we have thoroughly reviewed relevant materials, we are unable to comment further at this time.”