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True Election Fraud?

By Frank Parlato

Lawyer Johnny Destino house and getting her to sign an application for an absentee ballot with wrong information. Destino says he was never there.
Niagara County Legislator and Niagara Falls Fireman Jason Zona is running for reelection in the 5th District. He can dish it out and take it.
Patty Weiss
Royal Park Apartments on Porter Rd.
Robert O’Toole

The last time it was Democrats Jason Zona and Johnny Destino making criminal allegations against a Republican operative.

This time Republicans are making criminal allegations against Destino and Zona.

Zona, the 5th District Niagara County legislator, up for re-election this November, and Destino, a local attorney active in Democratic political campaigns, are being accused by Niagara Falls Republican City Chairman Patricia Castillo of trying to illegally secure absentee ballots.

In a news release issued last week, Castillo claimed Zona and Destino engaged in election fraud and called on the Niagara County sheriff and district attorney to investigate.

"At issue," Castillo's press release states, "are multiple ballots requested and cast based upon alleged temporary illnesses, the manner in which these ballots were applied for, and the intimidating and misleading tactics used to manipulate elderly voters in the 5th District into signing ballot-request documents and casting votes."

Castillo also released an affidavit from Marie Nichols, age 57, who Castillo describes as an "elderly voter."

According to Castillo "Destino went to the home of an elderly voter (Nichols) on Sept. 4, with a completed absentee application and encouraged her to sign it" and in doing so, "tried to manipulate her vote."

In order to qualify for an absentee ballot in New York State, a voter must check one of a number of possible reasons why he or she cannot go to the polling location and vote.

Among the choices allowed are: being absent from the county; unable to appear at the polls due to temporary or permanent illness or disability; or if one is the primary care giver of individual(s) who are ill or disabled; a patient or inmate in a Veterans' Administration Hospital; or in jail or prison with certain exclusions.

In the instructions on the application for the absentee ballot, it reads it is "a felony to make a false statement in an application."

Nichols' signed application for her absentee ballot indicated she was "temporarily ill," something Castillo blames Destino and Zona for and not Nichols who signed it.

Neither Destino nor Zona signed Nichols' application.

"When submitted to the Niagara County Board of Elections, that application had a 'temporary illness' box checked as to the reason for her to vote absentee," Castillo said. "There is no 'temporary illness' attributed to the elderly voter and the handwriting on the application is starkly different from hers on the ballot."

"She told me she had difficulty getting around," Zona said. "I can tell you this: Nichols signed this application. She is the one who signed that she was temporarily ill. She told me she had a problem with her legs."

Nichols is not elderly as described by Castillo, but, at 57, rather closer to middle aged, lives on a second-floor apartment and walks up a flight of steps to get there, somewhat contradicting the argument that she has disabling problems with her legs.

The Niagara Falls Reporter, through interviews with Nichols and others, learned that Nichols not only signed an application for an absentee ballot where it indicated she was temporarily ill, she also authorized the Niagara County Board of Elections to release her ballot to Destino.

Nichols said that some, if not all, of the application was already filled out before she signed it, that she did not know what she was signing, and that the box marked "temporary illness" may have been filled in after she signed it.

Zona told the Reporter that he filled out some of the application in advance of meeting Nichols and some was filled out with Nichols before she signed the completed document.

"Nobody signed any blank document, that's for sure," Zona said. "Everything was filled out prior to her signing. Nothing was added after she signed it. [a portion of] these ballots were filled out ahead of time by the election commissioner. I filled out the part of the 'temporary illness.' For her to say it was blank is an out and out lie."

While Nichols is the only voter who has yet to complain publically, Castillo suggests there may be others and questioned the "high incidence of (absentee) ballots submitted by Zona and Destino that claimed a 'temporary illness'" on the part of voters.

According to election records, there are eight absentee voters in the 5th Legislative District who authorized Destino to pick up their ballots and who later voted.

According to Destino, he picked up Nichols and the other ballots and gave them to Zona.

Getting absentee ballots released to third parties is not unique to Democrats or Destino and Zona.

Republican Executive Committee member Patti Weiss' husband, Wally Weiss, and Republican Town of Wheatfield Councilman Larry Helwig had ballots released to them for tenants of the Royal Park Apartments, where Patti Weiss serves as manager.

One of the major bones of contention in this looming controversy seems to be whether Destino went to Nichols' home -- as Nichols and Castillo claim and Destino denies -- to get her application for an absentee ballot signed.

At first, in an interview with the Reporter, Nichols did not identify Destino as the person who came to her house, describing a man with dark hair, slender and "nice looking," who got her signature on the application for the absentee ballot.

After signing the application, which she admits was brought to her by a man she could not identify by name, she later identified the man as Destino.

"I saw a picture of him and I remembered his smile," Nichols told the Reporter during a subsequent interview.

Both Zona and Destino claim that Nichols is wrong. Zona told the Reporter that it was he, not Destino, who went to Nichols' house and got her signature on the application for the absentee ballot.

"If Johnny Destino delivered the application to Marie Nichols, I will resign my seat tomorrow in the legislature. It was me both times," Zona said. "I went to her because I knew her daughter. I saw Marie Nichols. Why would I lie about it?"

Nichols is adamant it was not Zona.

"It wasn't Jason that came the first time. He came the second time and he introduced himself," she told the Reporter.

When pressed to be certain of her identification since a lot might be at stake, including potentially someone's career, she said, "I understand how precious careers are. I do understand employment and that it is a treasure, but what happened, happened, and I am very sorry it did happen. I am not changing my mind. I know what happened. There was only one visit from Jason. Mr. Zona came with his little daughter. I don't ever remember meeting him (before). He did not come with (the application for the absentee ballot.)"

Destino said Nichols is wrong and that there is more to the story than what appears on the surface.

"It looks like a coordinated campaign to accuse me of committing a serious crime," Destino said. "They're just putting it out there. That’s illegal. You can’t just accuse people of that. (Nichols) is making a pretty strong accusation based on a faulty accusation. She better be able to do it under oath."

Zona agreed. "Republican operatives orchestrated the entire episode," he said. "The obsession the Republicans have with my candidacy and Mr. Destino is way out of bounds. We are not going to put up with their slurs and we are exploring the recourse of legal action."

Zona is one of three Democrats on the 15 member Niagara County Legislature. The other 12 members caucus with the Republicans.

When asked to explain why they said this had a political underbelly, Zona and Destino pointed out that Nichols lives at the Royal Park Apartments, on Porter Rd. in Niagara Falls. The complex is managed by Patti Weiss, a GOP committee member.

According to Nichols, Weiss did advise her and helped arrange Nichols' meetings with Republican operatives to compose her affidavit which was notarized by Wheatfield Town Attorney Robert O'Toole, a Republican active in the county GOP.

Nichols is registered in the Conservative Party, a minor party line, whose chairman is Patti Weiss' son, Dan Weiss, who is also closely associated with Republicans.

Another element of the controversy was candidate Zona's actual presence when he arrived at her apartment door with her absentee ballot.

According to Nichols' affidavit, Zona "stood over her."

She told the Reporter that Zona came to the door, "with his little daughter and he introduced himself. He was pleasant about it... making small talk... He had the absentee ballot and told me what names to write down."

At his request and following his instructions, she wrote Zona's name as a write-in candidate on the Conservative Party primary line for the 5th District, she told the Reporter.

"He was outside the door on the steps," Nichols said. "He was looking at the ballot. I asked him about the other people and he said he didn't know about them, so I voted for two other people. I didn’t feel pressured, but I felt caught off guard."

After she completed the ballot, she said, "I signed my name and (Zona) took it and put it in an envelope and sealed it and put that inside another envelope."

Nichols told the Reporter that at first she thought it was a "convenience" to have an absentee ballot delivered to her home and that it would save her time on primary day.

Later, she said she changed her mind and had remorse about it.

"I didn’t think about the whole voting process and my right to privacy," she said.

"I thought it was a convenience and that they were being neighborly,"Nichols said. "I’m healthy and not disabled in any way... I didn’t feel like I needed an absentee ballot."

On primary day, Nichols went to the polling location, canceled her absentee ballot, and voted for Zona's opponent, Giulio Colangelo, who is endorsed by the Republican, Conservative and Independence Parties.

Nichols insisted she only spoke with Weiss and other Republicans after the election and Weiss and others had nothing to do with her deciding to go to the polling place or to change her vote and cancel her absentee ballot.

When asked if she filed a criminal complaint, Nichols told the Reporter, "I don't know if that's any of your business and I have to go. I'm really sorry."

Destino said he didn't think that if there was an investigation, there was anything remotely suggesting that it would result in any criminal charges.

"I don't think they can put forth anything against us that can be charged," Destino said. "I don't think you can charge someone based on one woman's testimony. There is nothing to corroborate it. I wasn't even there."

"There is absolutely nothing illegal that was done here," Zona said. "The big picture though shows something much worse... I was warned from the start to expect an onslaught of dirty attacks in retaliation for exposing the (Republican's) pay-to-play set up in Niagara County. This is a professional political machine that completely controls local government and they have a big obsession with me."

But Castillo disagreed.

"Voter fraud is a serious crime as we cannot have the integrity of our elections called into question," said Castillo. "This is shameful conduct."

Destino said he plans a civil action and thinks there is a possibility there may be criminal conspiracy on the part of Republican operatives and Nichols.

"I am going to file an action for defamation per se in State Supreme Court. They are accusing me of a serious crime affecting me in my trade or business. We will subpoena Pat Castillo, Marie Nichols and Patti Weiss and see what they tell us. If they want to fall on the sword for George (Maziarz) and Henry (Wojtaszek) in what looks like a conspiracy, then it may be criminal. We prove time and time again that they commit wrongdoing. Let the jury decide. That's their job."

Destino ran against Maziarz in a Republican primary contest last year that saw Maziarz defeat Destino by a huge margin. Destino was backed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino and Democratic political strategist Steve Pigeon. The campaign was characterized by an extremely negative campaign on the Destino side that targeted Maziarz's friends and family and his personal life.



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

SEP 10, 2013