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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Fraud cases center on absentee ballots

Fran Knapp, center, Dutchess County Democratic Elections Commissioner,

Fran Knapp, center, Dutchess County Democratic Elections Commissioner, walks out of the Dutchess County Courthouse in the City of Poughkeepsie with her attorney, Seth L. Rosenberg, Esq. an attorney with the New York City law firm, Clayman and Rosenberg. (July 30, 2013) Credit: Karl Rabe/Poughkeepsie Journal

Absentee ballots often generate intrigue, suspicion and allegations across party lines. It is easy to see why.

"Other ballots are filed at the polling place -- where presumably people keep an eye on what goes on," explained a New York elections expert. "Absentee ballots go wherever they go and then come back with somebody delivering them." How they're handled, and by whom, opens chances for irregularities.

Last week, Frances Knapp, the Dutchess County election board's Democratic commissioner, was accused on 94 criminal counts of misconduct and false-instrument filing.

Under the law, an absentee voter may designate an agent to handle his or her ballot. Two years ago, says the indictment announced by Dutchess District Attorney William Grady, Knapp permitted the names of such designated agents "to be fraudulently changed" in the county's computer system.

With key details yet to emerge in the case, her lawyers Seth Rosenberg and Harlan Protass denied the charges and said Knapp "has dedicated herself to the integrity of the electoral process and the vitality of political life in Dutchess for decades." A former Republican election commissioner, David Gamache, has pleaded not guilty in a separate indictment through lawyer David Lewis.

Talk of the cases is rippling through state politics. In Albany, Democrats have been pushing for lawyer Kathleen O'Keefe to become the state election board's chief enforcement officer. O'Keefe in 2010 strongly urged the Dutchess County Democratic Committee to reappoint Knapp to the board, hailing her defense of absentee ballots from challenges by GOP lawyer (and Nassau County Attorney) John Ciampoli.

"Voter suppression is not something I engage in," Ciampoli said when contacted. O'Keefe said Friday she's represented Knapp in civil matters -- but has no involvement in the criminal case.

Accusations over absentee votes have flowed different ways. Last year, in a Brooklyn State Senate election, Democrats unsuccessfully sought a fraud ruling against winning Republican David Storobin's campaign. The charges focused on a Storobin staffer acting as agent for 177 absentee voters.

And 10 years ago, suspicions of fraud were publicly raised -- though never fully documented -- involving the handling of inmates' absentee ballots by New York City correction officers.

For the state Moreland Commission probing campaigns and elections, all this might, at some point, seem worth exploring.

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