The Herald-Standard - May 25, 1999
Charges are another chapter in two-year saga
By Paul Sunyak
Herald-Standard Staff Writer
Last week's filing of criminal charges against three people, including retired U.S. Rep. Austin J. Murphy, is the latest development in a two-year saga of alleged voter fraud in Fayette County. Murphy, personal care home operator Peggy Bouras and former Wharton Township tax collector Shirley Hughes each face three felony charges and two misdemeanor charges, along with three charges of violating the election code. District Attorney Peter U. Hook and state police filed the charges based on recommendations from a countywide investigating grand jury seated March 31 at Hook's request. However, the voter fraud story has its genesis in events which started May 20, 1997, in the Wharton Township 1 voting precinct. This week the Herald-Standard plans to recap those events, in a series of stories recapping the highlights of the voter fraud issue in 1997, 1998 and thus far in 1999. The first installment of the two-year recap is presented today. The others will follow in chronological order. This installment covers the period from May 20 until Sept. 7. 1997 May 20 When the polls close at the Wharton 1 precinct at 8 a.m., township auditor Sondra Cesarino challenges nine absentee ballots, eight of them from the Bouras Personal Care Home Inc. Cesarino acts based on suspicions dating back to the 1995 election, when local judge of elections Barbara Haase brought to her attention a large influx of absentee votes from the Bouras home. Cesarino pays $10 to challenge each vote, which means they won't be counted until after a formal hearing before the Fayette County Election Board.
The county Election Board comprised of Commissioners Sean M. Cavanagh, Vincent A. Vicites and Harry E. Albert III holds a hearing on the Cesarino challenges. Cavanagh grows suspicious when none of the challenged voters show for the hearing, which is instead attended by personal care home operator Peggy Bouras, Wharton Township tax collector Shirley Hughes and Fayette County Coroner Dr. Phillip E. Reilly, the longtime medical director at the Bouras home. After the hearing, Cavanagh camps out in the election bureau office, vowing not to let the locked Wharton 1 voting bag, which has not yet been opened for an official vote count, out of his sight. ``I'm prepared to stand here until hell freezes over, if I have to,'' says Cavanagh, who notes he is contemplating calling the FBI. Peggy Bouras says Cesarino's actions are politically motivated and adds residents of her home are ``very upset'' that their votes are being challenged. Bouras says 54 of the 75 people living in her home voted via absentee ballot, including World War II veterans who fought for their country. She says all of the voters are lucid, and those residents that are not were given little pieces of paper so they could pretend they were officially voting, so they wouldn't feel left out. ``The law says that unless they are incompetent, they can vote. This allows them to keep a little bit of their dignity,'' says Bouras. Cavanagh reveals Reilly said one Bouras voter couldn't make it to the polls and needed to vote absentee because of ``intermittent explosive diarrhea,'' a diagnosis Cavanagh found interesting.
Cavanagh says the commissioners should personally interview residents of the Bouras home whose votes were challenged before rendering a decision as the Election Board. Vicites says the Election Board needs to meet again with assistant county solicitor Robert L. Webster Jr. before deciding its next course of action.
After Vicites and Albert outvote him 2-1 and allow the eight challenged votes from the Bouras home to be counted, Cavanagh calls them both ``frauds'' and then phones the FBI from the Election Bureau asking for an immediate investigation. Cavanagh spreads out dozens of absentee votes from the Wharton 1 precinct on the Election Bureau floor, and points out striking handwriting similarities on write-in votes. Later that day, Vicites and Albert craft and sign a letter to county District Attorney Peter U. Hook, asking him to investigate all absentee votes in Wharton 1 due to ``suspicious circumstances.'' Albert says while the Election Board has subpoena power, he did not want to start a precedent whereby it started deciding who was eligible to vote. ``I don't want to start ruling on who's a qualified elector, or we're back to Alabama in 1962,'' says Albert. ``(That would be) going back to the days of George Wallace,'' when segregation was the norm. Albert says he feared that future boards of commissioners might end up deciding that women or blacks could not vote. Vicites says he has heard the opinion of Webster, and asks Albert if he would like to make a motion on counting the eight votes. When Albert does so, Vicites provides the second. Albert and Vicites later say Webster told them they must limit their decision to evidence presented during the May 27 Election Board hearing. When Cavanagh tells Albert and Vicites he is ashamed to serve with them, Albert tells Cavanagh, ``Then resign.'' Cavanagh replies, ``No, I'll hold you accountable until the day I die.'' Vicites says the commissioners met with Webster ``for several hours on a couple of occasions,'' and he recommended they make their decision based only on testimony presented at the hearing. When the eight challenged absentee ballots are counted, they reveal a handful of Democrat candidates in various races got nearly all the votes including Eileen R. Murphy, wife of retired U.S. Rep. Austin J. Murphy, who was written in on all eight ballots for inspector of elections.
Ralph and Mary Jane Boger of North Union Township, the nephew and niece of Bouras home resident Mabel Boger, 93, contact Cavanagh after reading in the Herald-Standard that the elderly woman was one of the eight voters challenged by Cesarino. Mary Jane Boger is appalled her aunt is voting Democrat from the Bouras home, particularly since the retired schoolteacher was declared mentally incompetent by the courts in 1989 and had been a lifelong, ardent Republican. ``She doesn't even recognize me ... She sits in a chair and sings to herself,'' says Ralph Boger. ``To tell you the truth, she doesn't know who she is.'' Mary Jane Boger says she was further tipped off because the name Mabel was misspelled Mab-l-e on her aunt's recent election records.
June 5 District Attorney Hook declines to investigate as requested by Albert and Vicites, citing a lack of resources in his office and the need to give priority to more serious criminal code violations. Hook also chides the commissioners for not doing their own investigation as the county Election Board before turning the matter over to him. ``A failure to conduct an investigation by you, as members of the Board of Elections, may well be a violation under provisions of the Election Code,'' wrote Hook. Separately, the commissioners that night approve a series of motions by Cavanagh to request investigations by the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department, and to ask Hook to request state Attorney General Mike Fisher to launch an investigation if Hook doesn't have the resources. Citizen Brian K. Lutes of North Union Township says, ``The DA doesn't want to touch it, the attorney general doesn't want to touch it. Anybody can see what's going on: the (political) machine is protecting itself.''
The FBI agrees to investigate ``possible election law violations'' in Fayette County. During a county Salary Board meeting, Hook and Cavanagh exchange words, particularly over why Hook won't invite in Attorney General Fisher. ``If this gets brushed under the carpet ... Mr. Hook, I will pound you until the end,'' says Cavanagh. ``If there are not forgeries (in this case), I will resign as county commissioner.'' Hook says forgery is difficult to prove and tells Cavanagh he needs hard evidence to proceed. ``Once you do a proper investigation, we'll prosecute it,'' says Hook. ``I want a full report from an investigator, along with a handwriting expert. You get me the hard evidence. That's what we need in court.''
After a commission meeting, Albert reveals the FBI has sealed records in the county Election Bureau related to the alleged absentee voter fraud. Albert says he heard about the records-sealing from assistant county solicitor Webster. Lutes says it is a ``bunch of lies'' that attorney general Fisher can't come into the county unless invited by Hook. Lutes says state law allows the county's president judge to make that request even if Hook won't.
State Attorney General Fisher declines to investigate the alleged voter fraud, saying that office, ``has no authority or jurisdiction to conduct an investigation and prosecution at this time.''
The U.S. Justice Department declines to get involved, noting, ``The administration of the election process and the prosecution of election-fraud offenses is primarily the responsibility of the states.'' A Justice Department spokesman recommends the matter be brought ``to the attention of the Fayette County prosecutor (district attorney) or to the attorney general of Pennsylvania.'' A disappointed Cavanagh says, ``I'm stunned by this whole process ... One thing I want to know is, do I or don't I live in America?''
Cavanagh steps up his criticism of Hook, chiding him for not launching his own investigation or calling in the state attorney general Fisher to do so if he doesn't have the resources. Cavanagh says Hook's ``credibility is at stake'' and wonders aloud if Hook is protecting somebody or the political system. Hook doesn't return phone calls seeking his response to those comments. ``He can't talk with you because he's doing a brief on a homicide. He said he'll be doing it all day,'' says a district attorney's office spokeswoman.
Led by Cavanagh, approximately 150 people march through downtown Uniontown in a protest rally which begins on the courthouse steps and ends at the Hall of Freedom. Several speakers rail against corruption in the county and the lack of official action regarding the voter fraud issue.
Reilly responds to the Herald-Standard's request for an interview by inviting a reporter from the Greensburg Tribune-Review to attend the session and dubbing it a ``press conference,'' even though he has nothing to announce. When informed by the Herald-Standard that it was not good journalistic practice to share exclusive story information, Reilly says it would be ``discourteous'' not to invite other media. ``You say this (interview arrangement) is a first in the history and annals of journalism? I think that's baloney,'' says Reilly. ``The charges being made are voter fraud ...''
Aug. 3, 4 and 5
The Herald-Standard runs a three-part series on absentee voting at the Bouras Personal Care Home Inc. in Wharton Township. The investigative report uncovers three more elderly voters who have been declared incapacitated by the courts. That they are voting comes as a surprise to their court-appointed legal guardians. The Allegheny County granddaughter of another of the Bouras voters says her grandmother is not capable of casting an informed vote. The newspaper report reveals Peggy Bouras assisted 13 voters in obtaining and filling out an absentee ballot for the May 1997 primary election. The newspaper also reveals that of the 46 Bouras home residents who cast absentee votes in the election, all but one were registered Democrats including three who had been registered Republicans before moving there.
Albert and Vicites adjourn a commissioner's meeting as Cavanagh tries to address charges levied against him by Stella Broadwater, a member of the Brownsville Area School Board. During public comment, Broadwater says she took ``no position'' on the Bouras home, then said Cavanagh's mother voted in 1995, 1996 and 1997, even though he had publicly revealed she suffered from mental health problems. Broadwater also says she thinks the Herald-Standard's recent three-part series on Bouras home voting was ``a lot of publicity for you, Sean.'' ``Competence is simply not a requirement to vote,'' says Broadwater. ``The role of the newspaper is to print the news, not create it. And I'll be reading the Tribune-Review tomorrow.'' Before the meeting is adjourned, Cavanagh tells Broadwater he takes great offense to her bringing his mother into this. He points to Ralph and Mary Jane Boger and says he is more concerned about their belief that someone is taking advantage of their elderly aunt than what Broadwater thinks. ``This has nothing to do with publicity. It's about democracy ... free and fair elections,'' says Cavanagh. ``Forgery is a major concern. Forgery is wrong ... and a felony.''
Cavanagh says he believes Broadwater came to the Aug. 21 meeting to help set him up for an attack. Cavanagh says Broadwater is related to Wharton Township tax collector Shirley Hughes, whose maiden name was Broadwater. Broadwater says she is her ``second cousin through marriage, but that relationship had nothing to do with her commissioners' meeting appearance. Broadwater also confirmed she worked on Hughes' 1995 campaign when Hughes ran for a Democratic nomination for Fayette County commissioner. ``Sean can't connect me to any political machine. I've never been a machine candidate; I've always ran independently,'' says Broadwater. Broadwater also says she wants the Election Board to investigate the union printing seal Cavanagh's 1995 campaign cards. If any of those cards were sent by mail, Broadwater says she wants the FBI to investigate as well. Cavanagh says his cards were printed at Copycat Printing and there was no contrived wrongdoing on his part. He says Broadwater is ``reaching out'' in an attempt to find something on him.
Copyright 1999 The Herald-Standard.
Christopher L. Kelley of Georges Township says it is a ``big joke'' that his 66-year-old aunt, who resides in the Bouras home, has been sent a questionnaire for jury duty. Kelley says his aunt has a long history of mental illness and was placed at the Bouras home when Somerset State Hospital closed. His aunt was one of 46 Bouras home residents who cast absentee ballots in the May 1997 primary election.
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Revised: May 25, 1999.
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