LAWRENCE – Mayor William Lantigua yesterday rejected recommendations from his personnel director and from the city clerk that he place an election official on leave following allegations that the official faked signatures on nominating petitions and then certified them as valid.
“I am deeply concerned with the allegations that a member of your department, under your control, may have acted improperly,” Lantigua said in an e-mail to City Clerk William Maloney, suggesting he may attempt to hold Maloney responsible for any corruption uncovered in the city’s Election Division. “However, I also think it’s inappropriate for me to take action against anyone involved so directly with the election process, hours away from an election, without a proper investigation.”
The promise of that investigation came even as Lantigua was pushing the send button on his e-mail to Maloney, when Secretary of State William Galvin announced he would look into the allegations against Rafael Tejeda, Lawrence’s bilingual election coordinator.
The allegations were published in The Eagle-Tribune on Sunday.
The newspaper alleged that Tejeda last spring signed the names of at least four Lawrence residents on petitions that put City Council President Frank Moran on the Democratic line in the 17 Essex House District in today’s election. The newspaper relied on an analysis by forensic handwriting expert Ronald Rice of Plymouth, who found “the style, slant and flow” of the four signatures matched Tejeda’s own signature on Moran’s petitions and on Tejeda’s voter registration card.
Tejeda also filled out the box at the bottom of the sheet of signatures certifying that all 23 signatures on the sheet were valid, including the four alleged fakes, Rice said.
Tejeda denied faking the signatures.
Moran did not return a phone call yesterday, but said earlier that the allegations are “lies” cooked up by his opponent for the House seat, Kevin Cuff, who is running as an independent. Cuff brought the signatures to the attention of The Eagle-Tribune last week, when he alleged that all 180 or so signatures on Moran’s petitions were signed by just five or six people. He called the similarities in the penmanship “goofy.”
City Councilor Roger Twomey, who serves on the council’s personnel committee, said Lantigua should make Tejeda step aside while Galvin’s investigation goes forward.
“I can’t say whether he’s guilty or not, but what I would say is that it puts a taint on the Election Division and I believe it would be in the best interest of the city if he were put on leave,” Twomey said. “The city’s always been accused of having election fraud. It’s never been proven, but (the allegation) is always there. This doesn’t help.”
Alejandrina Reyes, one of the people whose signatures Tejeda allegedly faked, said last week she did not sign Moran’s petition. Reyes is a citizen of the Dominican Republic and so is ineligible to vote in the United States and is not on Lawrence’s voter rolls.
The three others whose signatures may have been faked could not be reached.
One of the three, Norma Fuerte – who is the sister-in-law of Tejeda’s wife and lives in the same building at 71 Greenwood St. as the Tejedas - voted by absentee ballot last month. A week ago, The Eagle-Tribune requested a copy of her ballot application and the envelope the ballot was returned in to determine whether the signatures on them also may have been faked.
The request for the document was referred to Lantigua’s office, as Lantigua requires for all requests under the state’s Public Records Law that are filed with city departments. The city has not yet released the documents.
A handful of officials and candidates in today’s election questioned whether the city can run the election fairly given the allegations against Tejeda, who is one of just three employees in the Election Division.
John “Jack” Wilson, the Republican running for Northern Essex Registry of Deeds, traveled to Boston yesterday with the hope of meeting with Galvin to request that he send observers to Lawrence’s 24 polling places today. He said he was told Galvin was not available.
“We’ll have poll checkers, someone stationed at polls to monitor voters that come in,” Wilson said. “But I’m more concerned about what’s going on in City Hall, outside of what’s going on at the polls. The mayor casts a large shadow over every office and department in the city, including the Election Department. That was one of my concerns that I wanted to bring to the Secretary of State, to make sure there was no meddling going on by the mayor’s office in the election.”
Wilson offered no evidence that Lantigua is connected to the alleged corruption in the Election Division, beyond the several days it has taken for the The Eagle-Tribune to get documents involving Fuerte’s absentee ballot.
Lantigua did not respond to a request for an interview, although he told one news organization following the story that he would take “appropriate action” if needed once Galvin’s investigation is completed.
In the meantime, Lantigua included an admonition in his e-mail to City Clerk Maloney rejecting the request from Maloney and from Personnel Director Frank Bonet to place Tejeda on leave.
“Please ensure that Mr. Tejeda’s performs his job correctly and that the election results will be beyond reproach,” Lantigua said. “I assume that you and members of the Board of Registrars are capable of monitoring Mr. Tejeda’s performance at this crucial juncture (if not before), or at least of obtaining the necessary assistance to do so.”
Tejeda was hired in 2002 to assist the city’s Spanish-speaking voters as part of a consent decree settling allegations by the U.S. Department of Justice that the city’s election practices discriminated against minorities. His 11-year-tenure makes him the Election Division’s longest-serving employee.
Tejeda was behind the counter in his office in the basement of City Hall yesterday afternoon, assisting voters. He said he was unaware his supervisor and the city’s personnel director had requested his leave and would not comment further.
After Wilson’s visit to Galvin’s office, a spokesman for Galvin said election observers will be sent to Lawrence today, but suggested that the assignments are routine.
“The (Secretary of State) will have observers in Lawrence, as we planned all along,” said spokesman Brian McNiff. “We’ve had them there before, in previous elections, and we intend to have them there tomorrow.”
The Eagle-Tribune was one of two news organizations on Sunday to allege voting irregularities in Lawrence. Fox 25 News, a Boston television station, reported finding four foreign citizens on the city’s voting rolls. The report found that those four were wrongly registered to vote through the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and did not register in Lawrence City Hall.