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Freeholder Election Controversy Could Affect Parsippany Town Council Race

After a hearing in which a Lyon attorney pointed fingers at a local council member, a Superior Court judge says he'll decide Nordstrom v. Lyon on Monday.

After three weeks of testimony that centered on allegations of voting fraud in Parsippany—including allegations of an illegal campaign donation on the part of one of the candidates that was not denied in court—Superior Court Assignment Judge Thomas Weisenbeck will take the weekend to decide the fate of the June Republican freeholder primary.

Weisenbeck said he would issue his decision Monday on the battle over the freeholder race, the fate of which has become intermingled with Parsippany's primary election for township council.

Incumbent Freeholder Margaret Nordstrom is fighting to hold onto her seat—or at least the Republican nomination for it—but a recount of the extremely close primary showed newcomer Hank Lyon besting Nordstrom by just six votes. The winner of the G.O.P. primary will face Democrat Truscha Quatrone in the fall general election.

Among the judge's options is the choice to declare the freeholder primary election void.

That was the subject of Weisenbeck’s last question to Deputy Attorney General Alan Stephen Thursday after competing lawyers summed up their cases.

”Is it the attorney general’s position that in statute and case law, that I have sufficient authority to overturn this election?” he asked.

Stephens replied, “Yes, I’d say so.”

Stephens said that his office reviewed one disputed ballot and awarded the vote to Nordstrom, reducing Lyon’s margin to five votes.

The case was based on Nordstrom’s assertion that during the recount it was noticed that there were questionable votes in Parsippany. Nordstrom also said she learned after the primary that Lyon received a $16,000 campaign contribution from his father, who was also the campaign’s treasurer, and that Lyon had not filed the required 48-hour report with the state election authorities.

Zakin said Thursday that if the recount had affirmed Lyon’s lead, Nordstrom would have been prepared to concede the primary, making Lyon the Republic freeholder nominee for the November election.

Instead, Zakin said, questions arose during the recount as to the legality of some votes from Parsippany, and Nordstrom's camp learned Lyon used the $16,000 contribution to mail a campaign flier to 25,000 households. The flier, according to Zakin, was filled with misinformation and inaccuracies about Nordstrom’s record.

He said those circumstances convinced Nordstrom that her standards for any election had been violated. Those standards call for transparency and fairness, guarantees that no voters were disenfranchised and assurances the candidates competed on a level playing field and by the same rules.

In his amended petition for an election contest, Zakin said that the voter fraud in Parsippany and the existence, but lack of disclosure of, the $16,000 campaign contribution made it impossible to obtain an accurate vote count. The petition said the primary election should be overturned.

Zakin said it was evident that several votes are in question. He cited 12 cast by Parsippany voters who came to court and testified that they did not cast the ballots credited to their names. He also said at least 32 others must be questioned because of the testimony of the vote “bearor,” Jiga Shah of Parsippany, who said he mishandled some of the ballots.

Zakin said equally important was the campaign contribution and flier that resulted.

Reports from Lyon, filed after the primary, showed that Robert Lyon made a $16,000 contribution within 13 days of the voting date. That contribution exceeded the individual contribution limit of $1,200, and represented 80 percent of the funds used by the Hank Lyon campaign, Zakin said. He further disputed the Lyons’ claims that the money came from a personal account controlled by Hank Lyon, and instead used Robert Lyon’s testimony to show that the funds were directed to his son for use in the campaign.

Zakin said Nordstrom, like all experienced campaigners, closely watches her opponent’s campaign filings. When a report was filed late in the campaign showing that Lyon reported little more than $600 in his campaign account, Nordstrom pulled back her campaign and did not issue her own flier just before the election.

Instead, Zakin said, the additional contribution allowed Lyon to mail the one last flier. In the 13 towns were it was mailed, Zakin said, Lyon received 55 percent of the vote, compared to Nordstrom’s 42 percent.

The campaign contribution and the subsequent flier were among the circumstances “that cost Nordstrom the election,” Zakin said.

Attorney Richard Wedinger, an associate of Lyon’s lead attorney Sean Connelly, said Nordstrom failed to make her case.

Without saying that Nordstrom had any role in creating the issue, he said the incumbent benefited from the illegal Parsippany voting because of her connections to a group of Republicans known as Team Parsippany. That team is made up of incumbent township council members Michael dePierro, Vincent Ferrara, John Fox and Brian Stanton. All but Fox were successful in their own primary race.

Wedinger said that Nordstrom made appearances with the Parsippany group, made a campaign contribution to their cause, and issued a joint flier with them. Wedinger said that the bearors who testified in court said they were charged by Team Parsippany to help get out the vote, and that at least one of the team, Stanton, was actively involved with the drive to increase mail-in ballots, where the infractions occurred.

Stanton vehemently denied Wedinger's statement.

"It's 100 percent false," he told Parsippany Patch, asserting that he is innocent of any wrongdoing and is a man of integrity. "My absentee campaign is run completely by my wife, Angela Stanton, and my treasurer, Michael Banko. They do everything from picking up the ballots, having them signed in front of the bearor and delivering them to the county. It's documented at the county.

"I have no hands-on with the process whatsoever once the ballots are delivered, and I take pains to follow every law to a tee," Stanton continued. "If they want to call every absentee signed in by my wife and Michael Banko, let them. I'd welcome it."

Wedinger said the infraction of turning in illegal votes, under case law, was not enough to overturn the election.

He further said that it was common sense that said the 12 disputed votes, because of the close connections between Nordstrom and Team Parsippany, were probably cast for Nordstrom.

Weisenbeck, in a previous session, concluded that it was “an impossibility" to know how those voters had voted because of the potential that someone else cast those ballots—and because the chain of custody of the ballot, from voter to election official, had been violated.

On the matter of the $16,000 campaign contribution, Wedinger said, the Lyons made a good-faith effort to follow the directions in the election manual issued by the state. He said for a first-time candidate, the manual seems confusing.

He passed off the failure to report the $16,000 contribution as a “rookie mistake.”

Weisenbeck, trying to ascertain where the manual seemed confusing, led Wedinger through a quick reading of the table of contents of the manual, which is issued by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. The judge also questioned whether the Lyons called the telephone number listed in the manual that offered ELEC staff to answer questions or read the frequently asked questions listed in the manual.

Wedinger in the end said the judge had not been presented any basis during the trial to overturn the election. Further, he said, the issue of the illegal campaign contribution should be decided by ELEC.

But the judge said ELEC has no jurisdiction over a primary election.

PatienceWorth September 09, 2011 at 03:28 PM
Lyon has to be disqualified, or every candidate from now on will simply wait until the last minute and Pearl Harbor their opponent with a false smear mailing. Whether you agree or disagree with campaign laws, both sides in a campaign have to play by the same rules. If someone accepts a large last minute donation from the American Nazi Party, the voters are supposed to know about it, by law. Whether he was ignorant, sloppy or conniving doesn't matter, Lyon isn't ready to be a lawmaker.
PatienceWorth September 09, 2011 at 03:34 PM
Also....if this election is void because of the Lyon's manipulation of the campaign law, I'm sure the wealthy Lyon family will be happy to write the taxpayers a check for the incredible cost of all the state and county attornies, the judge and court time. Maybe they will also reimburse the Patch, Daily record and Star Ledger reporters. And the Republican Party, particularly if they have to have a convention, which will cost tens of thousands of dollars. As Republicans concerned about taxpayer's dollars, I'm certain the Lyons will pay for their lawbreaking, right?

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