Nassau DA investigating contested Hempstead school board race

Attorney Fred Brewington, right, with poll watcher Dennis Attorney Fred Brewington, right, with poll watcher Dennis Jones, discusses school board election results in Hempstead Friday, May 23, 2014. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice is investigating a disputed Hempstead school board race, her chief spokesman said yesterday.

Sources with knowledge of the case said investigators were present in the school district Thursday, two days after the vote on two board seats and the district's nearly $185 million budget.

Shams Tarek, Rice's spokesman, declined to comment further.

Austin Graff, an attorney for the school district, confirmed that it received three subpoenas from Rice's office. Graff declined to elaborate. "The DA has her job to do," Graff said. "If the DA finds criminality, those people should be prosecuted."

Graff said the school district ran a fair and open election, though some people may be upset about the results.

A source close to the investigation said the district attorney's office took machines, paper ballots of all kinds, envelopes, notes, records, signature books and sheets, lists, logs, sample ballots and other correspondence relating to the election.

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Hempstead attorney Frederick J. Brewington, representing candidates who contend there were voting irregularities, called the district attorney's probe "an appropriate step."

"We're saddened it had to come to that," Brewington said at a news conference Friday in his Hempstead office.

Absentee ballots the focus

At issue in the race are scores of absentee ballots.

On election night, candidate Maribel Touré led with 712 votes to Betty Cross' 691. The following morning, when 31 disputed absentee ballots were opened over Brewington's objections, Cross had a six-vote lead.

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Cross was sworn in Wednesday, as was Ricky Cooke, top vote-getter among seven candidates for two at-large posts.

Cross declined to speak at a news conference held in her honor Friday on the steps of the school district's administrative offices.

Local elected officials and pastors by her side condemned so-called "outsiders" for inserting themselves into the situation.

"We are joining this morning . . . to discuss the outside influence in our village of people trying to pick our leaders," said Wayne J. Hall Sr., mayor of Hempstead Village. "We are tired of that. We want to be able to sit and work this out our own self."

The Rev. Joe L. Brown, pastor of the Faith Baptist Church in Hempstead, concurred, saying the village can solve its own problems.

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"We would like for all outsiders to leave us alone," he said.

In addition to the district attorney's investigation, a probe at the state level is possible.

Brewington, who represents Touré and Cooke, said he soon will appeal to state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. about the validity of the election.

Brewington made that announcement Thursday after State Supreme Court Justice Arthur M. Diamond granted a temporary restraining order to preserve all records associated with the vote. The judge did not take any other action after determining he had limited jurisdiction in the case.

State weighs in

Jonathan Burman, a state Education Department spokesman, said Thursday that school board elections are handled locally. If King is asked to weigh in, a decision could take months, a department website detailing the appeals process said.

The commissioner will give "great deference" to decisions made by local officials, according to the site.

On Friday, Burman said an investigation by the district attorney "should not impact the commissioner's authority to render a decision in an administrative appeal" under state education law, if such an appeal is brought.

Touré, 52, and Cooke, 56, ran as a team. Neither has served on the school board previously. Cross, 67, has served on the board for more than 25 years and is its current president.

In recent pre-election interviews, all three spoke of what they consider the district's most pressing issues.

Touré, an X-ray technologist and certified mammographer, called for an independent audit into the district's finances to curb what she said is wasteful spending.

Cooke, an education consultant who has worked as a substitute teacher in district schools, said the culture of the administration must change, with school officials taking opinions of residents and staff into account.

Cross, a retired nurse, said she wants to grow the curriculum for science, reading and math.

The Hempstead school district serves about 6,300 students. About three-quarters of them were classified as economically disadvantaged by the state in a 2012-13 report. High school students had a 44 percent graduation rate that year, the report found.

The beleaguered school system recently was found by the state to have changed more than 2,200 quarter and final student grades, mostly from failing to passing.

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