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Destino, Zona Accused of Election Fraud; Criminal Probe Underway!

By Mike Hudson

Niagara County DA Mike Violante said he takes voting matters seriously.
Sen. George Maziarz
GOP Cit  Chairwoman Pat Castillo is spearheading the effort to make the matter public
Giulio Colangelo is running
against Zona.

The irony was palpable. One day after seeing the criminal case they cooked up against Niagara County Legislature Clerk Mary Jo Tamburlin thrown out by Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita III, Niagara County Legislator Jason Zona and Niagara Falls School Board Member Johnny Destino are themselves accused of voter fraud in a criminal complaint.

Niagara County District Attorney Michael Violante on Monday received a criminal complaint from Marie Nichols of Niagara Falls, who alleges that Destino and Zona double teamed her in a desperate effort to have her vote by absentee ballot in the recent primary.

"The sheriff’s department is investigating this, and once the results of the criminal investigation are in, we’ll be able to make a determination on how to proceed,"Violante told the Niagara Falls Reporter in an exclusive interview. "This is something we’re taking very seriously."

Possible charges against Destino and Zona could include misdemeanor and felony counts, Violante acknowledged.

In her complaint, Nichols stated that a box on the ballot request form submitted to the Niagara County Board of Elections had been checked after she signed the document indicating "temporary illness"as the reason for needing an absentee ballot.

She told the Niagara Falls Reporter she was not ill at all, that she actually went to the polls and voted last Tuesday in person, negating her absentee ballot, and that she didn’t know who checked the box.

The absentee ballot application was one of at least eight obtained by Destino at the Board of Elections office in Lockport and his name appears on the document. Most of the eight also list temporary illness as the reason for needing to vote by absentee ballot.

Nichols positively identified Destino as the man who brought the request form to her home in an exclusive interview with the Reporter over the weekend.

"I wasn’t sure what he looked like,"she said when asked why she hadn’t identified Destino by name in an earlier affidavit. "But then I saw his picture in the Niagara Falls Reporter and he was definitely the one who brought me the paper I signed."

The recently taken photo in the Reporter accompanies an ad for Destino’s law practice. According to Nichols, Destino told her voting by absentee ballot was simply a handy way for her to cast her vote, and that she was unaware that any specific reason was needed under the law.

Actually, state law requires a specific reason, such as illness, infirmity or not physically being in the district at the time of the election, for an absentee ballot to be issued.

"I thought an absentee ballot might be a convenient way to get my vote in so I could do other things that day,"she said.

A few days later, she said, Zona - accompanied by his daughter -- appeared at her door with the actual ballot and instructed her on how to fill it out.

"As I voted, Mr. Jason Zona stood over me to write his name, Zona, and a Texeria in the two empty boxes,"she said in a sworn affidavit attached to the criminal complaint.

Destino said he never went to Nichols’ home and Zona said it was he who went on both occasions. Further, Zona said it was he who made temporary illness the reason for Nichols not being able to cast her vote.

Both men claim the criminal complaint is purely political in nature, the product of a Republican conspiracy masterminded by state Sen. George Maziarz.

"There is absolutely nothing illegal that was done here,"Zona said. "This is nothing more than another attempt to distract me from discussing the real issues of the county. That is what the county GOP has done over and over."

Zona said that his efforts to expose Republican corruption have made him the target of a witch hunt.

"I was warned from the start to expect an onslaught of dirty attacks in retaliation for exposing their pay-to-play set up in Niagara County,"he said. "This is a professional political machine that completely controls local government and they have a big obsession with me."

In response, Maziarz said the investigation would reveal the facts of the case and determine the viability of any criminal charges.

"The bottom line is that what happened here is now the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by the district attorney,"he said. "But I will say it’s very rare for someone accused of a crime, any crime, just to admit to it right out of the box."

After Destino and Zona learned that Nichols filed a criminal complaint, they made numerous attempts to contact her by telephone, prompting the elderly woman to lawyer up. She is now being represented by prominent Niagara Falls attorney Joe LaTona.

Destino said he plans to file a defamation suit against Nichols and Niagara Falls Republican Chairman Pat Castillo, who named him in a recent press release concerning the case.

Niagara Falls Republican Party Chairwoman Pat Castillo said submitting a fraudulent document to the Board of Elections is a grave offense.

"Parties tend to nitpick over the technicalities during the election season, whether it is campaign finances or stealing signs, but manipulating an elderly voter to misrepresent their vote takes it to a whole new level,"Castillo said. "Voter fraud is a serious crime."

Zona and Destino, she added, crossed the line.

"Multiple absentee ballot applications submitted by Johnny Destino claim temporary illness,"she said. "The only temporary illness that went through this town was the sick feeling of manipulation and deceit when it was discovered that Destino and Zona tried to manufacture votes."

The most comical thing, Castillo added, was that the efforts of the two went completely for naught. Zona’s opponent in the Fifth District, Giulio Colangelo, won all of the contested races, besting Zona on the Republican, Conservative and Independence lines.

Last month, Zona and Destino, both Democrats, claimed that Mary Jo Tamburlin, a Republican, had deliberately and fraudulently dated the signatures of three voters one day after the signatures were actually collected.

They collected affidavits and filed a criminal complaint with Niagara County District Attorney Michael Violante, but the case was referred to Erie County because Tamburlin had previously campaigned for Violante.

After a thorough review, Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita III said last week that he could find no evidence of deliberate fraud.

"There’s no evidence her intent was fraudulent or criminal,"he told reporters.

Misdated petitions, those with signatures written in the same handwriting as other signatures, wrong addresses and misidentified party affiliations are common occurrences in every election cycle, where often dimwitted candidates and their supporters circulate petitions in an almost devil may care fashion.

Signatures for virtually every candidate are contested by the opposing party, and are often thrown out by the Board of Elections. A prosecution for such errant nonsense is unrecorded in recent history.

Investigation and prosecution for outright voter fraud, which is what Destino and Zona were accused of on the day after their Tamburlin allegations were dismissed as baseless by Sedita, is something else altogether.

Noted Election Law Attorney Talks About Types of Violations

Says Multiple Voters are Needed for a Case to Proceed

John Ciampoli, a Dutchess County attorney who specializes in voter fraud cases and was a former chief counsel to the state Board of Elections, said there is a "small fistful"of potential criminal charges related to falsifying any information on an absentee ballot.

"The two most common criminal charges associated with manipulating someone else’s ballot are conspiracy to promote or prevent an election, which is a misdemeanor under state Election Law, and falsifying a public instrument, which is a Class E felony,"he said.

Ciampoli is currently involved in a case in which Dutchess County Democratic Commissioner Fran Knapp was charged with more than 80 criminal counts, using her employment at an assisted living facility to facilitate fraudulent absentee ballots from the elderly residents.

"You often see politicians and political operatives targeting senior citizens in these scams, because they’re easier to intimidate,"he said. "And you’ve got to remember that each fraudulent ballot results in separate counts."

In more than 30 years of involvement in voter fraud cases, Ciampoli said he has never seen an instance where only one voter is targeted in various absentee ballot schemes.

"You get one complaint on something like this and that’s generally just going to be the tip of the iceberg,"he said. "Voting is a sacred right in this country, but any time you set up a system, you’ve got people who go out and try and beat the system."



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

SEP 10, 2013