Skirmishes broke out all over Erie County’s Democratic battlefield this week with two complaints of campaign irregularities filed at the state Board of Elections, one alleging that Elections Commissioner Dennis E. Ward ripped up the designating petitions of an anti-headquarters candidate for county committee.
Ward vehemently denied the charge and issued his own threat of legal action by hinting at a slander suit.
“Never happened,” Ward said. “Never, ever.”
In addition, Amherst Councilman Mark A. Manna sent to Albany another complaint alleging that the county party’s leadership unlawfully paid for postage in mailing objections to petitions for committee and judicial nominating convention candidates involved in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Manna contends party organizations are prohibited by election law from spending party money in a primary, a claim Ward also countered by noting a federal court decision several years ago that declared the provision unconstitutional.
“Mark apparently did not check with his attorney – Steve Pigeon – on that,” Ward said, referring to the local political operative often at odds with the party leadership.
The disputes reflect a larger split in the party that has been ongoing for years and pits a faction represented by Pigeon against the current leadership of Ward and Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner.
Manna is pursuing the complaint and contends that party money was also spent on legal proceedings related to candidates for judicial nominating conventions.
“All that has value and all that costs money,” he said. “That should be spent from a separate account.”
The Buffalo News reported in July that Pigeon, the former county chairman, was planning a legal complaint on the Michael K. Deely petitions along with longtime political associate Kristy L. Mazurek.
“This is about an elections official destroying a document,” Pigeon said then. “There is no doubt it violates the law in several areas besides election law, including abuse of power. This is exceptionally serious.”
Now the matter is before the state’s bipartisan election panel after the complaint was filed by Deely, a New York State United Teachers official who has been active in Democratic politics and was running for county committee. He claims that on July 8, he and fellow candidate Catherine C. Walsh (Ward’s secretary at the Erie County Board of Elections) submitted their petitions to Democratic Headquarters via Angela Feeney, who was involved in collecting signatures.
He said Feeney delivered them to the party’s Seneca Street headquarters, where they were handed over to Ward, who also serves as secretary of the county committee. Deely was not present at headquarters but said in his affidavit that Ward stormed out of a back room with the petitions in hand while “shouting obscenities and disparaging remarks.”
“In the presence of all, including, of note, Assemblyman Sean Ryan, Ward ripped the petitions of Deely and Walsh into pieces and tossed the shreds in the air stating that Mr. Deely would never be elected as committeeman,” Deely’s complaint said.
Ryan said he does not agree with the affidavit. “I didn’t see any of these things happen,” he said. “It’s news to me.”
John Rivera, who is also named in the complaint as a witness and who was present at headquarters that night, said he saw no such action on Ward’s part.
“That certainly did not happen in my presence,” he said.
The new complaints follow an already-simmering party dispute stemming from the allegations of Ward and Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr earlier this year that Mazurek violated election laws while running a political committee during the 2013 election season.
In an unusual bipartisan action, Ward and Mohr ruled that the WNY Progressive Caucus, which raised $267,000 for opponents of several candidates backed by Democratic Headquarters in last fall’s primary, violated election law by filing campaign finance reports marked by discrepancies between what was reported to the board and what was actually paid to local television stations for political ads.
In an even more unusual move, the state Board of Elections then unanimously voted – at the request of Ward and Mohr – to open an investigation into the committee, which was run by Mazurek and to which Pigeon contributed heavily.
Mazurek said in July that the investigations should come full circle, following her need to “lawyer up” and her new demand for an investigation of Ward and his Democratic operation at the Board of Elections.
Mazurek said she has complied fully with the ensuing Board of Elections investigation, while she and Pigeon deny any wrongdoing.