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Herald-Standard, 11/19/99

Grand jury report delivered to commissioners

By Paul Sunyak
Herald-Standard Staff Writer

A copy of the investigating grand jury report on voter fraud was presented to the Fayette County commissioners Thursday by the assistant district attorney who handled the case. Jack R. Heneks Jr. said his office may have a statement on the case in
the future, once criminal charges filed in the case are concluded.

Fayette County Commissioner Sean M. Cavanagh said he hopes the district attorney will at some point address how prosecutorial decisions were made. ``I think what's on people's minds is why a deal was cut,'' said Cavanagh. Heneks in response said, ``Frankly, we are extremely comfortable with this case.''

Following the grand jury probe, former U.S. Rep. Austin J. Murphy, former Wharton Township Tax Collector Shirley Hughes and personal care home owner Peggy Bouras were each initially charged with eight violations of the law and the election code.

However, seven of the eight charges were dropped at the preliminary hearing stage. With District Attorney Pete U. Hook's blessing, the remaining charge against all three defendants a violation of the election code will be resolved by their admission into Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition.

After they complete the terms of their ARD, the criminal records of Murphy, Hughes and Bouras will be expunged. The final grand jury report also made several suggestions concerning the operation of the county's election bureau, including better training for employees and changes in procedures.

Heneks said while he and others involved in the grand jury proceeding are ``forever bound'' to abide by its secrecy rules, that doesn't preclude more in-depth discussion by his office of the report's recommendations and conclusions.

``We can talk about the recommendations but not the processes that got (us there),'' said Heneks. ``We may have a statement ... once those (cases) are concluded.''

Cavanagh, a leader in pushing for a criminal investigation into voter fraud in Wharton Township, said he finds it interesting that the Allegheny County district attorney has taken a different approach in handling the same type of allegations.

Cavanagh said the Allegheny County prosecutor didn't call for formation of a secret grand jury, but rather delved into the case, investigated and filed criminal charges.

``It's an interesting comparison and contrast of two district attorneys,'' said Cavanagh. Heneks said a key difference may have been that the Allegheny County situation involved ``more recent'' election allegations, whereas the Fayette County situation was
2 to 4 years old.

Before Thursday's meeting, Heneks said the grand jury formed in March has officially concluded its work and been discharged by Judge Gerald R. Solomon. Later in the meeting, the commissioners unanimously agreed to implement one of the grand jury's
recommendations, which was to conduct a purge mailing of the voter registration rolls at an estimated cost of $20,000.

``We need to follow the election law to the T,'' said Commission Chairman Vincent A. Vicites, who presided over the Tuesday budget hearing where funding for the purge was included. ``If we don't get this (purge) started, we're not taking an aggressive
stance on this,'' said Vicites.

Vicites advocated that all three commissioners ``sit down and look at'' the recommendations of the grand jury, as well as those of the advisory Fayette County Voter Fraud Committee. After doing so, Vicites said it makes sense to develop a step-by-step plan to implement those changes, including the purge of voter registration rolls. Cavanagh said the appropriation of $20,000 was a vital preliminary step; however, he noted the purge won't be carried out until a well thought out comprehensive plan is developed.

``I think the purpose of putting it on the agenda (today) is to get the ball rolling,'' said Cavanagh. ``Our goal is to have the most knowledgeable and user-friendly (Election Bureau) staff.''

Cavanagh said it's his understanding that the purge process will involve sending by first-class mail a card to each of the county's 70,000 or so registered voters, asking them to verify their address. Commissioner Harry E. Albert III said if the purge process also includes mailings to people who have voted in recent elections, he considers it a waste of money.

``It seems to me to be a waste of taxpayers' money to mail to people who have recently voted,'' said Albert.

Citizen Brian K. Lutes of North Union Township told the commissioners that carrying out a purge program without some type of internal checking would do little to eradicate fraud. Lutes said if the cards are being mailed to the addresses from whence
people were registered to vote, the process is ripe for perpetrators of fraud to simply mail back the cards saying all is well.
``We got to this situation because no one was checking the registrations as they came in,'' said Lutes.

Lutes said he offered two years ago to be an unpaid inspector of registrations, a job he believes is mandated by state law.
Lutes said his offer to fill that job still stands. He said door-to-door verification, if necessary, is the only way to ensure that people exist and are living in the proper voting precinct. However, Ralph Mazza of Franklin Township said he doesn't think Lutes is
the man for that job. Mazza said when he talked to Lutes about it in the past, Lutes told him if someone wouldn't let him
into their home Lutes would obtain a search warrant. Mazza said that sounded to him like a ``Gestapo tactic,'' and one which
he does not personally support. Mazza said it would be better and less intrusive to verify addresses through the post office.
Two members of the county's nine-person voter fraud committee Delinda Young and Sondra Cesarino also addressed the commissioners.

They urged the commissioners to implement that group's own set of recommendations. They also confirmed that all members of the group have agreed to step down, in deference to the new set of commissioners which will take office in January. Cesarino said it's her hope that the new commissioners Vicites, Cavanagh and newcomer Ronald M. Nehls will appoint a new group.

Copyright 1999 The Herald-Standard.

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