Incumbent responds to challenger’s charges of fraud
The path to the Bronx’s 17th City Council District hit an unexpected bump at the Bronx Board of Elections, when incumbent City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo admitted under oath that people employed by her campaign had committed fraud.
But she’s not at fault, she insisted; three employees she paid to gather signatures are.
Answering charges brought by Julio Pabon, her challenger for the council seat that represents Hunts Point and Melrose, Arroyo told a referee appointed by the State Supreme Court that she has turned the names of Betty Julien, Elbin Lopez and Luis Vargas over to the Bronx District Attorney’s office. She told the hearing she suspects they forged many of the signatures they claim to have gathered while circulating petitions in Hunts Point for her candidacy.
The DA is investigating whether the trio committed those forgeries as part of a ploy Arroyo called “kitchen petitions,” referring to workers who forge signatures by using names from existing voter registration rolls. The eight-year incumbent said she had noticed many signatures looked suspiciously similar to one another when she pored over them shortly after the deadline to submit petitions in mid-July.
“Something struck me very strongly,” she told the referee.
Asked if she had any relationship with the three accused, she said, “I couldn’t pick them out of a lineup,” although she added that both Julien and Vargas had collected signatures for her campaign in past years. She later corrected herself, saying she would know Julien if she saw her.
Each candidate must submit at least 450 valid signatures to be eligible to appear on the Sept. 10 Democratic primary ballot. Arroyo’s workers gathered about 3,300 signatures, but 1,800 of those have already been ruled out by the Board of Elections, because the signers live outside the district,were not registered voters, were not enrolled Democrats, didn’t list identifiable addresses, or gave wrong addresses.
Earlier in the day, Pabon’s team brought in one of Arroyo’s alleged forgers, Elbin Lopez, as a surprise witness.
Lopez, a Mott Haven resident, testified he went door to door to have residents sign the petitions, then brought the petitions to the home of “Richie” on 140th St. Richie is Arroyo’s nephew Richard Izquierdo, who served a one-year sentence for embezzling funds from a non-profit housing agency he managed. Arroyo funded the agency and served as its volunteer executive director.
A day before Arroyo testified, Pabon’s counsel Donald Dunn called several people whose names appear on the councilwoman’s petitions to testify at the office of the Board of Elections. Before entering the elections office makeshift courtroom, one Hunts Point resident, Phyllis Tripp, 39, of 754 Manida Street, expressed outrage that someone had forged her signature.
“How do we know our Social Security number is not being used for illegal things?” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair. We residents of the Bronx vote for these politicians, then when they get elected, they falsify information.”
Miguel Oquendo, 37, of 647 Manida Street, was nervous that complete strangers had signed his name.
“I was scared,” Oquendo said, while waiting to testify. “Somebody could take my identity.”
Jocelyn Valenzuela, who volunteered to collect signatures for Pabon’s campaign, said no one lives at several of the Hunts Point addresses where people supposedly signed Arroyo’s petitions.
“They were all commercial spaces,” she testified.
State Supreme Court Justice John W. Carter will render a ruling after receiving the election board referee’s report in the coming days on whether there are enough legitimate signatures left in the Arroyo camp to keep the incumbent on the ballot in September. Even if there are, he could rule that the petitions are so heavily permeated with fraud that she should be removed her from the race.
The story was updated on August 2 to reflect that a State Supreme Court judge will render a ruling on the case, not the Board of Elections.