Article from the Connecticut Post, reporting by Ken Dixon, Brian Lockhart, and staff writers:

BRIDGEPORT — Nearly four years after a Hearst investigation into the alleged misuse of absentee ballots in the contentious 2019 Bridgeport Democratic mayoral primary that was narrowly won by Mayor Joe Ganim, state elections officials have recommended possible criminal violations by three people aligned with the mayor’s campaign, including a member of the City Council, to the chief state’s attorney.

The State Election Enforcement Commission, the regulatory agency that launched the initial investigation after a series of articles that cited voters who said they were steered toward voting for Ganim via mail-in absentee ballots, recently referred the case to Chief State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin.

The SEEC investigators were hampered by the COVID pandemic, which hit the state in March of 2020 and delayed some in-person interviews. In June, the commission voted unanimously to authorize staff lawyers to refer “evidence of possible criminal violations undertaken.”

Named in the referral was Alfredo Castillo, a member of the city council; Wanda Geter-Pataky, a City Hall employee, and Nilsa Heredia, all of whom supported Ganim.

Heredia, who was paid hundreds of dollars by the campaign to circulate applications for mail-in ballots in the 19-building P.T. Barnum apartment complex in Black Rock, testified in a court challenge to the primary results in the fall of 2019. She stressed that she did not assist voters in filling out their ballots, but provided them with blank applications and stamps.

The trial before Superior Court Judge Barry Stevens included testimony from voters who said that their completed absentee ballots had been collected by Ganim campaign workers in apparent violation of state law, and that applications for ballots were improperly distributed and mailed out with address corrections that should not have occurred.

The five-week-long trial ended when Stevens ruled that while the case uncovered some level of fraud as well as major weaknesses in the absentee-ballot system that were exploited in the primary, there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn Ganim’s victory. “In summary, the plaintiffs were successful in identifying very serious election law violations, but the heat of this evidence is not hot enough to vacate the entire primary in the manner they sought,” Stevens said. The general election, which Ganim easily won, took place five days later. 

Castillo, who is awaiting a scheduled December trial on second-degree breach of peace and second-degree threatening in connection with an alleged confrontation with a city department head two years ago, first disconnected a phone call from a reporter on Wednesday morning, then did not answer his phone several times. He also did not immediately respond to a text messages requesting comment.

Alfredo Castillo kissing Mario Testa’s ring at the Democratic Town Committee convention.

… Reached on Wednesday morning, Geter-Pataky said she was not aware of the results of the SEEC investigation or the criminal referral and would be contacting a lawyer. “As far as I’m concerned I didn’t do anything wrong. I work and I do things according to the law,” she said, declining further comment.

There was no immediate response Wednesday from Ganim’s 2023 reelection campaign, but Moore, who failed this year to petition her way onto the Sept. 12 primary ballot with Ganim and fellow Democrat John Gomes, said she was robbed of the 2019 victory.

“The outcome of the 2019 municipal primary in Bridgeport was rigged,” Moore said. “The people who abused absentee ballots were responsible and should be investigated. Two of the three accused were city employees at that time and if they are found guilty, any pensions they are entitled to should be in jeopardy.”

The State Elections Enforcement Commission declined further comment beyond the minutes of the meeting in which the criminal referral was ordered. Requests for comment from Chief State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin were not immediately returned.

At around the time of the court challenge to Ganim’s 967 mail-in votes to Sen. Marilyn Moore’s 313 votes, Geter-Pataky was celebrated by prominent state and Bridgeport Democrats — including U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, Gov. Ned Lamont, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, then-Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and then-Party Chairwoman Nancy Wyman — during the party’s annual Women’s Leadership Awards Brunch. The SEEC investigation was started by Merrill, acting on Hearst reports.

Wanda Geter-Pataky receiving an award from the Connecticut Democrats, days before she was named in the “Lazar v. Ganim” lawsuit for illegally securing absentee ballot votes during the 2019 primary.

Callie Heilmann, co-director of Bridgeport Generation Now Votes, which did not endorse a candidate in the 2019 primary, but filed the lawsuit alleging voter fraud along with three other voters, said Wednesday morning that it is delayed vindication for a long-standing pattern in Bridgeport.

“For too long, Bridgeport voters have been subjected to widespread absentee ballot abuse and voter intimidation, for the purpose of controlling the outcome of our elections,” Heilmann said. “We applaud the State Elections Enforcement Commission for taking this investigation and the protection of voting rights in Bridgeport seriously. What we discovered after the 2019 Democratic primary has been validated by the announcement of SEEC’s recommendation to bring criminal charges against Alfredo Castillo and Wanda Geter-Pataky. The local and state Democratic Party should immediately remove them from their party positions on our Town Committee and Mr. Castillo should resign from City Council and withdraw his candidacy for reelection. Additionally, we are watching this year’s absentee ballot process and stand ready to bring litigation again should the same behavior be uncovered.”

In the ensuing civil case filed by the local advocacy group Bridgeport Generation Now Votes, in an attempt to overturn Ganim’s narrow, 270-vote victory, Heredia, who was paid hundreds of dollars by the Ganim campaign to circulate applications for absentee ballots throughout the 19-building P.T. Barnum apartment complex, testified in court that she was recruited for the job by Geter-Pataky and Daniel Roach, one of Ganim’s top aides, chairman of the local police commission and the Democratic Town Committee district leader for Black Rock.

Political operatives routinely take out stacks of applications for absentee ballots for circulation. According to city election officials, Castillo took out 300 applications on May 25 and another 200 on July 18.

In 2019, voters were still limited in their use of the mail-in process, including illness, being out of town for education, work or military service. When the pandemic hit, state lawmakers expanded the legality of mail-in ballots for all voters, and on the statewide ballot in 2024, electors will be asked to approve an amendment to the state Constitution to allow so-called no-excuse absentee ballots for all voters.

“Three tied to Joe Ganim’s 2019 Bridgeport mayoral campaign recommended for criminal charges,” The Connecticut Post, written by Ken DixonBrian LockhartStaff writers, Aug. 30, 2023
The Unrig Bridgeport 2019 team outside the courthouse following Judge Steven’s ruling.

From our 2019 joint statement with PT Partners, following the conclusion of “Lazar v. Ganim, et al”:

“We want to thank everyone for speaking their truth about their experiences with absentee ballots during the September 10th primaries. Because of you, and many others in Bridgeport, we were able to uncover significant violations in the AB process, which gave us serious doubt as to the integrity of the election results.

Mary Frances Berry, a professor, writer, lawyer, activist and former chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, is clear that voting is a “demonstration of a community’s collective power.” Politicians, vote buyers, and vote manipulators want us believe our right to vote is an individual choice.

But when we recognize that voting is a demonstration of the power of the people, then we recognize our power to be educated of our rights, the law, and proper processes with regard to the vote.

Historically, for decades, Black, Latinx, Chinese, and Indigenous people in America have fought for the recognition and the rights of citizenship. In fact, as we all know, many people of color died for these rights; especially the right to vote. It is no coincidence that once these rights were achieved, those with power commenced a concerted and deliberate effort to disenfranchise these newly minted citizens.

And today, let us not be fooled; the strategies used in Bridgeport to manipulate absentee ballots most certainly continues this disenfranchisement because it “defraud[s] the very citizens who need government services the most.”

As our canvassing found these are: the impoverished, the elderly, people who are disabled, and to be racially specific, our Black and Latinx community members.

This lawsuit was never about a candidate. It was not before the lawsuit and will not be today nor going forward. Before the trial, we recognized the loss our Bridgeport community is experiencing as a result of voter manipulation. There are no winners and no losers. We are all disenfranchised. And, the sooner everyday citizens of Bridgeport recognize this, the more ready we will be for change.”