August 5, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Wayne County judge to hear request to block absentee ballots in Dearborn Heights

A Wayne County judge will hold a hearing Wednesday over a request to halt counting of absentee ballots in Dearborn Heights suspected of potential election fraud.

Judge Robert Colombo Jr. scheduled a 9 a.m. Wednesday hearing after a state Senate candidate sued and sought a temporary restraining order to set aside certain absentee votes cast in Tuesday’s primary.

State Rep. David Nathan, one of six Democrats running in the 5th Senate District primary, filed a lawsuit late Monday seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent Dearborn Heights Clerk Walter Prusiewicz from counting absentee ballots.

Colombo’s clerk confirmed late Tuesday a hearing has been scheduled. Nathan’s attorney said the judge planned to issue an overnight injunction.

Last week, Prusiewicz alerted the Attorney General’s Office and state Bureau of Elections that he suspected voter fraud at play after two men dropped off more than 250 absentee ballot applications in two separate batches. It’s illegal to solicit voters to fill out absentee ballot applications.

None of the applications was signed by the individuals who delivered them to City Hall as required by law, Prusiewicz said.

But under the advice of state officials, Prusiewicz has said he issued absentee ballots to all but 35 of the absentee voter applicants. Those denied were either not registered voters, no longer Dearborn Heights residents or their signatures did not match those on file with the clerk’s office. In one case, a voter submitted two applications.

“The concerns of impropriety raised by the city clerk for the city of Dearborn Heights are substantial and appear to point to a significant attempt to rig the election by way of voter fraud,” Nathan’s complaint said.

Nathan wants a judge to order Prusiewicz, Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett and the state Bureau of Elections to set aside the absentee ballots in question until an investigation into their origins is complete.

David J. Cross, Nathan’s attorney, said his client may not pursue the lawsuit if the winner of Tuesday’s primary wins by more than 250 votes.

“Anyone who wins by more than 250 votes, I think the issue may become moot,” Cross said. “No matter what the outcome of the race is, there’s potential voter fraud. Voter fraud is voter fraud whether you win or lose.”

Prusiewicz has said the men identified themselves as being affiliated with the campaign of state Rep. David Knezek, one of Nathan’s Democratic primary rivals.

The clerk could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The votes tallied Tuesday and sent to the state won’t include absentee ballots, said Dearborn Heights Mayor Daniel Paletko.

Paletko, who visited multiple precincts in his city on Election Day, said he had received no reports or any disturbances or disputes at the polls before they closed.

“I’m convinced it’s running smoothly,” he said. “It’s being handled professionally.”

The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) has claimed some voters of Arab-American descent were denied absentee ballots.

But a state elections official said last week based on information from the clerk and the ADC “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.”

“The investigation of these issues is ongoing and may result in criminal charges against those involved,” Sally Williams, director of the election liaison division at the state Bureau of Elections, wrote in a letter to the ADC.

Knezek has denied any involvement in the absentee ballot application solicitations.

The state Bureau of Elections dispatched a state employee to monitor the polls in Dearborn Heights today. Advocacy groups also plan to monitor the election closely.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and other advocacy groups referred voters to a hotline, (866) OUR-VOTE, to call if they experience any problems at the polls in Dearborn Heights.

The heavily Democratic 5th Senate District includes parts of Detroit’s west side, Garden City, Dearborn Heights, Redford Township and Inkster. The seat is being vacated by term-limited Sen. Tupac Hunter, D-Detroit.

Nathan and Knezek are in a six-way Democratic primary against former state Rep. Shanelle Jackson, of Detroit, Rep. Thomas Stallworth III, of Detroit, Carrie O’Connor, of Redford Township, and Frank Tomcsik, of Redford Township. Tomcsik’s name remains on the ballot, but he recently publicly dropped out of the race because of health reasons.

Detroit News Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.