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June 13, 2024

Lamont: SEEC response to 2019 Bridgeport scandal was ‘shocking’

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Gov. Ned Lamont at an emergency management drill on election issues Wednesday.

Gov. Ned Lamont had sharp words Wednesday for one of the Democratic officials arrested Tuesday in Bridgeport on charges arising from allegations of absentee ballot misuse in 2019 — and harsher ones for the agency responsible for upholding Connecticut’s election laws.

Lamont brushed off a question about whether the Bridgeport case demonstrates a  need for tougher penalties for elections fraud, focusing instead on why the State Elections Enforcement Commission needed more than three years to refer the Bridgeport case to prosecutors for a criminal investigation.

“I have a different take on this. You can lock them up and throw away the key or raise the penalty to $100,000,” Lamont said. “I think the answer to that election fraud is why the heck did it take three and a half years for SEEC to refer this to the State’s Attorney’s Office. I thought that was shocking.”

He called for Wanda Geter-Pataky, one of four Bridgeport political figures arrested earlier this week for actions related to the 2019 Democratic mayoral primary narrowly won by Mayor Joseph P. Ganim, to resign as vice chair of the city’s Democratic Town Committee.

“I think she should step down,” Lamont said.

If she doesn’t, should the party remove her?

“I would think so,” Lamont said.

Lamont spoke to reporters after a previously scheduled “emergency management drill” to prepare for secure elections. The drill involved scenarios related to cyber attacks and other disruptions at the polls, both natural and manmade. None involved the misuse of absentee ballots.

Michael J. Brandi, the executive director and general counsel of SEEC, participated in the drill, but he was not present when Lamont criticized his agency.

In an email later Wednesday, Brandi issued a strong rebuttal to the governor.

“I’m proud of the work our office did. Despite having to work through a global pandemic, we gathered the evidence necessary to make the criminal referral. Our work was the basis of the CSA’s [chief state’s attorney’s] case. We did our job.”

A law passed this year requires the commission to refer cases to prosecutors if probable cause of a violation is found and the case cannot be resolved within 90 days.

The General Assembly has cut the commission’s staff by 40% in recent years, but Lamont said that was no excuse for not addressing the 2019 allegations in a timely fashion that might have headed off problems in 2023.

“Everybody that always comes to me and says, ‘It’s just a staffing issue. We need more people.’ I mean, set your priorities,” Lamont said. “You have spent an awful lot of time on accounting issues. I think that case in Bridgeport in 2019 was a red flag. They should have prioritized it.”

Questions raised after the 2019 primary mirror those generated by the contested primary in 2023: In both years, Ganim trailed in votes cast at the polls but ultimately won on votes cast on his behalf via absentee ballots — a method of voting employed to a far greater degree in Bridgeport than other cities.

Three of those arrested this week worked to support Ganim’s campaign. The fourth, Josephine Edmonds, was a supporter of his challenger, state Sen. Marilyn Moore.

Geter-Pataky was a key player in Ganim’s absentee-ballot operation against Moore in 2019 and John Gomes in 2023.

Last year, Superior Court Judge William Clark ordered a do-over of the primary and general election, largely on the basis of surveillance video showing Geter-Pataky apparently placing multiple absentee ballots into one of the four absentee ballot drop boxes in the city.

“The videos are shocking to the court and should be shocking to all of the parties,” Clark wrote.

Under most circumstances, the handling of someone else’s absentee ballot is against the law in Connecticut.

Clark said the numerous videos of Geter-Pataky delivering ballots to the drop boxes and assisting other people in dropping off ballots highly suggested that she was breaking the state’s election laws.

Geter-Pataky, who asserted her rights against self-incrimination in testimony before Clark, has not commented on her arrest. Ganim and Mario Testa, the long-time Democratic chair in Bridgeport, could not be reached Wednesday for a response to Lamont.

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