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Was rental rebate program abused in Bridgeport elections? Probe underway

The front desk at the Margaret E. Morton Government Center in Bridgeport.
Shahrzad Rasekh
/
CT Mirror
The front desk at the Margaret E. Morton Government Center in Bridgeport.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission is investigating whether officials in Bridgeport abused a government rebate program to target potential absentee voters ahead of the city’s Democratic mayoral primary last September.

The SEEC, which is responsible for policing the state’s election laws, voted on Wednesday to issue a subpoena to the state Office of Policy and Management, which oversees the statewide rental rebate program.

That program is targeted towards elderly and disabled residents in Connecticut, and provides financial assistance to applicants in order to help offset their housing costs. It is administered at the local level but ultimately controlled by OPM.

In the leadup to Bridgeport’s primary last year, the program became entangled in city politics and the contest between Mayor Joe Ganim and his Democratic opponent John Gomes.

The Connecticut Mirror published a story last September that revealed a months-long fight within the Bridgeport government over who was managing the program for the city and who had access to the personal information for the program’s applicants.

Emails obtained by the CT Mirror showed Rosemary Wong, the woman who managed the renter rebate program in Bridgeport for years, accused other city employees who were supporting Ganim’s reelection of using the rebate program to target absentee voters ahead of the Democratic primary in September.

Those accusations were leveled specifically against Marie Heller and Wanda Geter-Pataky, two of the top officials within Bridgeport’s Democratic Party.

Tiadora Josef, Bridgeport’s director of communications, did not immediately respond to questions for this story.

The battle over the rebate program became so heated last year that Wong and Bridgeport City Councilwoman Maria Pereira, who supported Gomes in the primary, sent complaints directly to OPM.

“I am deeply concerned about the city employees/individuals being provided with access to incredibly sensitive information of thousands of vulnerable seniors up to and including social security numbers,” Pereira wrote to an OPM employee months before the election. “In my over 3 years as a city councilwoman, I have never seen the renters rebate program being handled the way it is being handled right now.”

In response to that email, OPM’s attorney told Pereira that the agency had no ability to investigate whether renter rebate program was being abused for political purposes. The attorney suggested Pereira contact the SEEC about her concerns.

Pereira told the CT Mirror on Wednesday that she never contacted the SEEC to alert them to her complaints about the renter rebate program because she saw that as OPM’s responsibility.

“It is OPM’s program,” she said. “So they should have filed a complaint about it, not me.”

The subpoena that the SEEC voted to issue to OPM this week actually stemmed from a referral that was made by the Bridgeport Police Department last September.

That referral was sent to the SEEC after Geter-Pataky, the vice chairwoman of Bridgeport’s Democratic Town Committee, was seen on surveillance footage allegedly delivering stacks of absentee ballots to a drop box outside the city’s government center where she worked.

The SEEC is not the first group to request information about the renter rebate program.

The attorneys representing Gomes also requested documents related to the program last fall as part of a lawsuit challenging the results of the mayoral primary in September.

As part of that lawsuit, the city was ordered to turn over documents and information related to the renter’s rebate program, but the documents were sealed as part of a confidentiality order in court.

The records turned over in court included the names, addresses and other personal information of more than 5,000 people in Bridgeport who requested the rental assistance.

Gomes’ attorneys ultimately chose not use the information as part of the lawsuit, which ended with a State Superior Court Judge William Clark determining that the Bridgeport primary was marred by widespread absentee ballot fraud.

Since that election, the SEEC has been inundated with dozens of complaints from Bridgeport, and Clark scheduled a new primary to be held on Jan 23.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.