Zappala asks county for help |

Zappala asks county for help

Brian C. Rittmeyer

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. asked Tuesday for six county detectives to investigate alleged absentee ballot fraud in Kennedy after ignoring citizen demands that he step aside from the case.

The county Elections Board voted unanimously to refer a special 30-page report detailing voting irregularities to Zappala, the former township solicitor, and U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan for criminal investigation.

The report prepared by attorney Robert Owsiany states Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein and his politically powerful father, Melvin Weinstein, filled out numerous absentee ballots in the 1997 general election. A handwriting expert linked the powerful Democrats to the absentee ballots.

Several Kennedy residents, who first complained of voter fraud in 1999, said Zappala should recuse himself from the investigation to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“He is too close to those people. He’s too close to the situation,” Bonnie Parent of Kennedy said.

Through a spokesman, Zappala disagreed.

“The fact he was solicitor for a number of communities in Allegheny County has nothing to do with his administration of this office,” spokesman Michael Manko said of Zappala, who served as Kennedy’s solicitor for about six years before becoming district attorney in 1998.

Republican County Executive Jim Roddey, a member of the Elections Board, called for the report to also be sent to the U.S. attorney to determine if federal laws were broken. Buchanan said her office has the authority to investigate the case, but declined further comment.

“There’s allegations here of criminal activity,” said county Councilman John DeFazio, the lone Democrat on the Elections Board. “We have no other choice but to turn this over.”

Manko said Zappala asked for county detectives because his office does not have enough staff to conduct the investigation. County Manager Bob Webb said the details will be worked out with Zappala’s office.

Handwriting expert Michelle Dresbold has said she found with a high degree of certainty that multiple absentee ballots from the 1997, 1999 and 2001 general elections and the 2001 primary in Kennedy had been filled out by the same person. Records from the 1999 primary which were considered critical to the investigation are missing.

Dresbold found that at least 28 absentee ballots cast in the 1997 general election contain the handwriting or printing of Kennedy Treasurer Melvin Weinstein and that a group of ballots might have been written by John Weinstein. She also found that the pattern of fraud changed after the allegations were made public in summer 1999.

Dresbold said she needed more samples of John Weinstein’s writing to determine the extent of his involvement.

County Councilman David Fawcett, chairman of the Elections Board, said more samples of John Weinstein’s handwriting will be obtained from public records and forwarded to Owsiany and Dresbold.

Melvin Weinstein could not be reached for comment. John Weinstein dismissed the findings of the handwriting expert and said the investigation is a politically motivated “witch hunt” by Republicans.

“You have the solicitor for the Republican Party, a private attorney who has represented most of the people in this report, hired by Roddey and Fawcett to investigate Democratic elected officials,” he said. “How that could be independent I have no idea.

“The true fraud and the travesty here is the taxpayers of Allegheny County are being billed for this political lynching,” he said. “That report is nothing but pure garbage.”

Owsiany, a solicitor for the county Republican Party, also served as a Republican member on the committee that drew boundaries for the new County Council districts. Roddey appointed Owsiany as chairman of a bipartisan transition team charged with examining county elections and recommending improvements. Among the team’s suggestions was to form an investigation unit to examine voter fraud allegations.

Fawcett chastised the county Elections Division for not properly investigating citizen complaints of voter fraud in Kennedy when they were raised in 1999. He said a letter sent to the residents saying nothing improper was found indicated an investigation had been conducted when it had not.

Mark Wolosik, manager of the Elections Division, said the absentee ballots from two districts in the 1999 primary were examined in his office.

“We didn’t see, to the layman, any similarities that jumped out at us,” he said.

Fawcett also put out a call for anyone with information about the disappearance of the 1999 primary records to come forward.

Wolosik has said the documents are believed to have been destroyed accidentally during a routine purging. Fawcett doubted that claim.

“They were likely stolen by the perpetrators of this fraud or someone else working with them,” Fawcett said. “There are people with knowledge and I’m urging them to come forward. We want to get to the bottom of this.”

Following the directive of the Elections Board last week, Wolosik said the Elections Division has taken interim steps to better secure voting records, including using padlocks and locking an interior room that had been previously left open. Fawcett also recommended a sign-in system to track who has entered the room and had access to the records.

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