John Gomes, who challenged seven-term mayor Joe Ganim in Bridgeport’s recent Democratic primary, announced Monday that he was filing a lawsuit seeking to halt the certification of the election.
The legal challenge comes nearly a week after the closely watched primary election and several days after the Gomes campaign released city surveillance footage that allegedly shows a Ganim supporter delivering absentee ballots to a drop box outside the Bridgeport government center.
Connecticut law restricts who can handle and 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.
The evidence of potential voter fraud, Gomes said, is why his campaign was filing an injunction with the court in order to stop the certification of the primary election results.
“This is bigger than the John Gomes campaign,” Gomes told reporters at a press conference at his campaign headquarters on Monday. “Right now, there’s a black cloud hanging over Bridgeport.”
Gomes, who has already retained an attorney, said he plans to ask a judge to schedule a new primary election, and the campaign said it will ask for an order to prevent the Bridgeport clerk’s office from releasing any more absentee ballot applications in upcoming elections.
“It is imperative that the upcoming election process remain untainted and free from any undue influence,” Christine Bartlett-Jose, Gomes campaign manager, said.
Gomes was ahead by several hundred votes after the polls closed last Tuesday and the ballots cast at polling stations were counted. But Ganim overcame that gap once the absentee ballots were counted.
The most recent results posted to the Secretary of the State’s website show Ganim with 4,212 votes and Gomes with 3,961 — a difference of 251 ballots.
Gomes said the video footage, which the campaign received late last week, of a Ganim supporter delivering absentee ballots should be enough for a judge to grant an injunction on the certification of election results.
The Gomes campaign released that surveillance footage on its Facebook page over the weekend and alleged that it depicted Wanda Geter-Pataky, a Bridgeport city employee and Ganim supporter, dumping absentee ballots in a drop box several days before Election Day.
The Connecticut Mirror could not independently confirm the identity of the woman shown in the video, and Geter-Pataky did not return phone calls and messages.
Gomes said he is considering if there are legal avenues through which the campaign could request any other video of absentee ballot drop-box locations.
The Bridgeport police, however, acknowledged that they were investigating the actions shown in the video and were also probing how the Gomes campaign obtained the video from the city’s surveillance footage.
The Gomes campaign refused to discuss the Bridgeport police’s decision to open an investigation into how the video footage got released.
The real issue, Gomes emphasized, is the potential absentee ballot fraud that is allegedly shown in the video.
The Gomes campaign said it submitted a complaint regarding the video to the State Elections Enforcement Commission, and that body is scheduled to meet later this week.
Gomes implored the SEEC to take the complaint seriously, and he noted that the SEEC recently referred Geter-Pataky and two other individuals tied to Ganim’s mayoral campaign in 2019 for possible criminal charges in relation to their handling of absentee ballots during that election.
“It’s not the responsibility of this campaign to investigate,” Bartlett-Josie said. “They need to simply step in.”
Ganim, whose has served two extended stints as Bridgeport mayor and who was also convicted on federal corruption charges in 2003, issued a statement on Monday condemning anyone who would undermine the results of the election.
“I want to state unequivocally that I do not condone, in any way, actions taken by anyone including any campaign, city, or elected official, which undermines the integrity of either the electoral process or city property,” Ganim said.
The Ganim campaign, however, also highlighted another investigation this weekend that was opened into Bridgeport city councilwoman Maria Pereira, a Gomes supporter who was caught on camera entering a Bridgeport apartment and allegedly looking for a resident’s absentee ballot.
Gomes was asked about that video on Monday and said that if people have any evidence that his supporters committed absentee ballot fraud or any other election-related crime, they should report it to the proper authorities.
“If anyone in our campaign was involved, please report it. Please provide evidence,” Gomes said.
Gomes also called on the Secretary of the State to intervene and to supervise the elections in Bridgeport.
“We advocate for supervised elections managed by the Secretary of the State’s office,” Bartlett Josie said. “This should extend to any senior building, private or public, that has more than 20 registered voters. Supervised elections will provide an additional layer of security and transparency, reassuring the voters of Bridgeport that their voices will be heard and their votes will be counted fairly.”
Secretary of State Stephanie Thomas held a press conference late Wednesday afternoon to address the issue but said her office is limited in how it can respond.
“I’m here today to let everyone know that our office takes the security of our elections extremely seriously. And we strongly condemn any kind of election impropriety and malfeasance,” Thomas said.
Thomas said the authority to investigate possible election fraud rests with the SEEC, which holds its next meeting on Wednesday. A spokesman for the agency would not confirm that the Gomes campaign has filed a complaint with them, but Thomas did.
“The Gomes campaign has filed many claims in this particular case, and I strongly urge the SEEC to do everything in its power to move swiftly with this investigation,” Thomas said. “And I’m going to say that again. I urge SEEC to do everything in its power to move swiftly with this investigation.”
The elections enforcement commission recently announced it had referred possible criminal charges in the 2019 Bridgeport election over alleged absentee ballot fraud to the office of the Chief State’s Attorney. One of the three people referred for possible charges was Geter-Pataky.
Thomas said her office also does not have the authority to conduct a criminal investigation. The Bridgeport police have opened an investigation into the incident, although they have stated they are seeking to determine who leaked the security footage from a city surveillance camera to the Gomes campaign, rather than what Geter-Pataky was doing.
Thomas also said because this is a municipal primary that her office does not have the power to refuse to certify the results — only the moderator from the municipality can certify them.
“In municipal primaries, the head moderator declares who has the most votes and declares that candidate nominated, and only a judge can decertify or otherwise overturn the results of that election,” Thomas said.
The Gomes campaign has talked about filing a lawsuit in Superior Court but has not done so yet. Under state law, it has 14 days after the primary to contest the results in court.
Thomas tried to assure residents that this incident doesn’t undermine her confidence in election integrity in Connecticut.
“This situation is not about partisan politics. It’s not about a broken electoral system. This isn’t even about absentee ballot systems. It’s about a few bad actors,” Thomas said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Gov. Ned Lamont weighed in on the controversy calling for a full investigation.
“I saw those videos. They were disturbing. That said, don’t jump to conclusions. I say that every time,” Lamont said. “But I really want to thoroughly investigate this. The integrity of our electoral system is so important. I got to make sure that people have confidence.”
Lamont said he has consulted with Thomas about potential changes to state law.
Thomas said she hopes the legislature will authorize the funds to have a special election monitor in Bridgeport for the next election in November.
Thomas rattled off a few changes that could be made from urging local leaders to “be sure they are in fact monitoring that footage during election season and installing security cameras if they do exist.”
She also mentioned “universal access to absentee ballots that can actually help prevent malfeasance in a couple of ways” — either by giving voters the option to sign up for how they plan to vote each year or by sending an absentee ballot application is sent to everyone to ensure the “lists are cleaner and it puts more power in the hands of individual voters versus potential bad actors.”
Thomas also said legislators could consider “instituting a municipal election accountability board for towns that have repeated issues.”
“This would be similar in nature to the municipal accountability review boards that we see for town finances. The board can provide help, accountability and oversight for local election officials up to and including appointing an election monitor to supervise the election administration in town,” she said.
This story originally appeared on the website of The Connecticut Mirror, www.ctmirror.org.