City Board of Elections rife with patronage: Report

City Board of Elections rife with patronage: Report
Photo by Steven Malecki
By Sarina Trangle

Good government groups are not the only organizations calling for city Board of Election reform these days.

Just before Mayor Bill de Blasio and 21 new City Council members took oaths of office, the city Department of Investigation published a report contending that nepotism, wastefulness and incompetency at the BOE illustrate the need to transition the agency into a non-partisan entity.

The BOE did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Under state law, the two major political parties share control of the Board of Elections, which is required to hire equal numbers of personnel registered with the Democratic and Republican parties. Ten commissioners comprising one Republican and one Democrat from each borough oversee the BOE.

The DOI report concluded that county political committees maintain an outsize role in personnel decisions. BOE employees told investigators they work with the county parties to recruit and hire, with one commissioner saying he had “to have a talk with my Garcias,” referring to the committee, before making a hire.

Investigators discovered the board does not generally post openings publicly or solicit applications, nor does it follow a standard procedure for screening prospective employees. Although election law gives county committees the opportunity to recommend commissioners to the Council, it does not establish roles for the parties in hiring other BOE staff, the DOI said.

These hiring procedures have led to at least 69 BOE employees working with relatives, including two commissioners, the report said.

Investigators referred two substantiated cases of commissioners engaging in nepotism to the city Conflicts of Interests Board. It did not name the commissioners.

One commissioner told investigators his wife took a position at the BOE because it allowed their family to get health benefits, but that he terminated her after concerns were raised about her employment. This same commissioner also helped his sister-in-law get a position and promotion at the BOE, the report said.

The document noted that a second commissioner helped her sister obtain a job in the board’s executive office.

U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights), who chairs the Queens Democratic Committee, and the party’s borough office did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did the Queens Republican Committee, chaired by Phil Ragusa.

BOE records obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request in August show Ragusa’s son, also named Phil Ragusa, has an administrative assistant position with the BOE that comes with a $43,459 salary.

Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), who helped an insurgent faction within the committee install Michael Michel as BOE commissioner instead of the party’s pick, declined to comment.

Within six months of Michel taking office, a handful of Queens Republicans left the BOE. Some resigned, while others were fired.

The report questioned the accuracy and efficiency of the board. It noted that undercover investigators purporting to be dead residents, former New Yorkers or felons were able to cast ballots 97 percent of the time this past Election Day. Investigators in their 20s and 30s who posed as dead voters at least 82 years old, said they were given ballots without question. The report suggests poor training may be to blame, noting that undercover investigators saw instructors ignore and contribute to cheating while poll workers-in-training took final exams. These inefficiencies do not come cheap. According to the report, the BOE is the only board in the state that still uses paper voter cards at the polls, which cost $40,000 this year.

The board also printed ballots based on a 90 percent voter turnout rate, despite the good government group Citizens Union claiming turnout for mayoral elections has not exceeded 60 percent since 1940. Alex Camarda, director of public policy and advocacy at Citizens Union, described efforts to transform the BOE into a non-partisan entity as a heavy lift.

Because the BOE’s bipartisan governance is written into the state constitution, the Legislature would have to twice approve the constitutional amendment before voters could pass reform via a referendum.

Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at strangle@cnglocal.com.

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