Suffolk GOP fights state claims

Published 6:10 pm Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What the chairman of the Suffolk Republican Party is calling an oversight could wind up costing his party as much as $2,500 if the State Board of Elections chooses to punish the local GOP to the fullest extent of the law for the mistake.

But Stephen G. Trent, GOP chairman in Suffolk, said he intends to fight not only the charge that sample ballots distributed by Republican poll workers on Nov. 3 lacked a necessary disclosure statement but also what he described as a lack of due process regarding the accusations.

“I really feel like I was railroaded,” Trent said on Tuesday, a day after a hearing in which the elections board was scheduled to consider whether to levy a fine on Suffolk Republicans for the alleged impropriety.

Trent said he received a letter on Friday informing him of the board’s intent to discuss the sample ballots on Monday.

“Usually, if you’re charging an organization with something, you contact the organization ahead of time,” he said. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the accused the right to representation in such hearings and gives them the right to face their accuser, he said.

“What is the due process here?” he asked. “They need to give us the chance to rebut it and to know our accusers.”

David Allen, the campaign finance manager for the State Board of Elections, said Tuesday that it is not unusual for candidates and others charged with infractions of the laws governing campaigns and elections to be absent from the meetings where their cases are discussed.

He sent the notification letter to Trent, he added, “really as a courtesy, to let him know that the board was going to be looking at this.”

Trent, he said, would have had a chance to appeal in January whatever decision the board had made on Monday.

With just enough time to rearrange his schedule and head to Richmond on Monday with an official from the state Republican Party, Trent objected to the process, convincing the board to table the matter and readdress it at its mid-January meeting.

And Trent doesn’t plan to be at that meeting alone. “It’s going to be turned over to the attorneys,” he said.

At issue is a light-blue sample ballot that Republican poll workers distributed at 17 or 18 precincts on Election Day. The ballot showed choices for all of the races that affected those in that election district, along with check marks in boxes next to each Republican’s name and next to the name of Jay Clason, an independent challenger to incumbent Sheriff Raleigh Isaacs.

The ballot included the words “Authorized and paid for by the Suffolk Republican Party.” According to Allen, it also should have included a declaration stating whether it was authorized by any of the nine candidates who were listed on the ballot.

Also, he said, the disclosure statement that did appear “was not printed in a conspicuous manner.”

Someone at the Nansemond River precinct reported the ballot to the Suffolk voter registrar, who then passed the information along to the city’s electoral board, Trent said.

Allen recommended that the Board of Elections punish the Suffolk GOP with the maximum $2,500 fine for the alleged infractions.

“We put a lot of emphasis on disclosures so the public can see where the money is coming from and where it’s going and make an educated decision.”

For his part, Trent said the sample ballots look pretty much like they always have and pretty much like the ones he’s seen distributed by Democrats.

“We have never put that on anything in the seven and a half years I’ve been on this job,” he said of the second disclosure statement. “It’s not on any of the previous sample ballots. This was not something that was a covert operation.”