Probe targets role of two in votes by absentees

Independence Party claims irregularities

News Northtowns Bureau
The Erie County district attorney's office is investigating allegations that two Grand Island Democratic candidates got votes in last month's primary by canvassing neighborhoods and asking voters to fill out absentee ballot applications.

Independence Party leaders say Kevin M. Rustowicz, a Town Board member, and Robin A. Swedish, a town clerk candidate who also is the deputy town clerk, helped registered Independence Party voters unknowingly commit voter fraud by guiding and directing them to put down invalid reasons for obtaining absentee ballots.

"They're claiming that (Rustowicz and Swedish) kind of orchestrated some type of campaign when they encouraged (Grand Island Independence Party voters) to file absentee ballots that don't really qualify," said Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark.

Ralph M. Mohr, the county's Republican elections commissioner, said some of the absentee ballots were legitimate - such as one that claimed a disability preventing travel to the polls or a vacation or an out-of-town business trip - but many should not have been granted.

"If they all came down in one batch, it probably would have sent up a flag. The problem here is that they came in over a period of time, about two weeks," Mohr said.

Michael J. Sendlbeck, chairman of the town's Independence Party, and Jean Orsini-Clabeaux, its secretary, said they became suspicious of Rustowicz and Swedish when they noticed 29 absentee ballots - much more than normal - had been cast in the primary election, and all of them were for Swedish and Rustowicz.

"That's highly unusual," Mohr said. "Whenever you have a small town with that many absentee ballots in a primary, that's a lot."

Rustowicz won one of two Independence lines for Town Board with 49 write-in votes. Richard W. Crawford Jr., a Republican Town Board member, and Michael E. Heftka, the Democratic challenger, both had 40 votes, but the party gave its other line to Crawford to break the tie. All of Swedish's votes for the party line were write-ins, but she lost, 48-36, to Patricia A. Frentzel, the GOP challenger.

Rustowicz and Swedish have denied any wrongdoing, calling the accusations political mud-slinging by the Independence Party. Swedish also stressed that the ballot applications had been reviewed by attorneys and the county Board of Elections.

"There is no evidence anything illegal like that was done," Swedish said. "It's unusual a candidate did that, but it's not illegal.

Rustowicz was unavailable to comment.

Though there is nothing illegal about canvassing neighborhoods and acting as agents - people who hand-carry the absentee ballots to the voters, if requested - Sendlbeck and Orsini-Clabeaux said they believe Rustowicz and Swedish had helped some of those voters unknowingly commit voter fraud.

Two of the absentee voters, for example, cited school and educational responsibilities as reasons for an absentee ballot. One of them attended D'Youville College, the other Buffalo State College. Others cited jobs as justification for an absentee ballot. Another person said her job at a day care center would prohibit her from going to the polls.

Clark stressed that his office's review of the matter doesn't necessarily mean any "criminality" was involved.

"Sometimes there are procedures that are used that are frowned on, but are not necessarily criminal," the district attorney said. "Not every irregularity constitutes a criminal offense. It doesn't appear to be any penal law violations, so we're going to be reviewing it to see if there are any express violations of the elections laws, which are misdemeanors."

The results of last month's primaries cannot be reversed or changed, officials noted, but the Board of Elections will have to scrutinize absentee ballot applications in the future, Mohr said.

"Now, we're going to have to pull in the reins a bit and revise our procedures because of the actions of candidates who really took advantage of the system and devised this scheme to get around the system," Mohr said.