August 1, 2014 at 10:11 pm

State investigating Dearborn Heights voting allegations; city clerk under fire

Allegations of voter fraud, suppression and discrimination in Dearborn Heights are leading state officials to launch an investigation and advocacy groups to call for federal monitoring of the election Tuesday, as well as the removal of the city clerk.

Last week, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Michigan office said Arab-American voters were prevented from obtaining absentee ballots. The claims sparked outrage from the community and calls to remove Clerk Walter Prusiewicz. ADC Michigan also is seeking an investigation.

This week, Prusiewicz reported to the state attorney general, Michigan Bureau of Elections and the Wayne County prosecutor what he described as potential voter fraud and campaign irregularities involving about 250 absentee ballot applications dropped off at his office. In the letter, he said both batches were from men who appeared associated with the campaign of state Rep. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, who is running for the 5th Senate District seat in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Prusiewicz also acknowledged that the applicants “appear to be of Arab American descent.”

It is illegal to solicit voters to fill out absentee ballot applications in the same manner voter registration drives are conducted, state officials said.

Based on the information presented by ADC Michigan and Prusiewicz, “it appears clear that hundreds of (absentee voter) ballot requests have been illegally handled, solicited from voters, and submitted to the clerk’s office by a small number of individuals,” Sally Williams, director for the Election Liaison Division, Michigan Bureau of Elections, wrote in a letter Friday. “The investigation of these issues is ongoing and may result in criminal charges against those involved.”

Williams also said the bureau would have staff monitor part of the election in the city on Tuesday and takes any allegations of wrongdoing “very seriously.” Clear violations would be referred to the attorney general or other appropriate authorities, she wrote.

Joy Yearout, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, has said state officials were reviewing Prusiewicz’s complaint.

Knezek issued a statement denying his campaign’s involvement and said the clerk’s allegations were “an attempt to damage my credibility on the eve of a major election.” He added Friday that he welcomes an investigation and “I look forward to cooperating every step of the way.”

Meanwhile, civil rights and advocacy groups remain wary of alleged discrimination and are asking federal authorities to take action.

The Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other civil rights groups plan a press conference Saturday calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to monitor the primary and November elections in Dearborn Heights.

“Based on the amount of complaints that many Arab-American and American Muslim absentee ballots have still not been properly processed, we are concerned about the fairness of the upcoming primary in Dearborn Heights,” CAIR-MI Executive Director Dawud Walid said in a statement.

ADC Michigan officials also were expected to present more information about possible voting irregularities, he said.

In a letter Thursday to Williams, ADC Michigan director Fatina Abdrabboh requested Prusiewicz be relieved of his duties. She raised concerns about the clerk’s work, statements and timing of his claims as well as the possibility that more absentee ballot applications have not been processed. “Further complicating matters, there are community members who need absentee ballots that will not deal with the current city clerk for fear of similarly being turned away or intimidated,” Abdrabboh wrote.

Williams responded in her letter that the law requires clerks to compare and validate signatures on the ballot applications. Prusiewicz “contends that ballots for all eligible voters who requested (absentee voter) ballots have been distributed,” she wrote, and the office continued to process new requests.

Her bureau has no authority to remove the clerk but is continuing to monitor his performance; an election specialist also worked with the clerk this week and “received a report that all procedures are being properly followed,” Williams wrote. She said processing delays could possibly have been “caused by those who are inappropriately collecting applications and delivering them by mail.”

In a statement this week, Prusiewicz said he was “committed to conduct a fair and ethical election in the city.”

Meanwhile, the council is seeking clarification on allowing Prusiewicz to remain in his position after he resigned last week citing staffing and other issues then rescinded the resignation. The matter was expected to be addressed during a regular meeting this month.