August 6, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Judge dismisses lawsuit over disputed absentee ballots in Dearborn Heights

Detroit —A Wayne County judge dismissed a lawsuit Wednesday that raised suspicions of election fraud involving hundreds of absentee ballots in Dearborn Heights.

Judge Robert Colombo Jr. lifted an injunction Wednesday morning that halted the counting of absentee ballots after state Rep. David Nathan, a state Senate candidate, sought a temporary restraining order to set aside certain absentee votes cast in Tuesday’s primary.

“There is absolutely no evidence in this case that there has been one fraudulent ballot submitted by absentee ballot,” Colombo said.

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.

According to county election results reported Wednesday morning in the heated race for the open seat in state Senate District 5, Rep. David Knezek topped the race Tuesday, with 29 percent of the vote. He was followed by former Rep. Shanelle Jackson, with 25 percent, and Nathan, who had 22 percent of the votes with 100 percent of precincts in.

Last week, Prusiewicz alerted the Attorney General’s Office and state Bureau of Elections that he suspected voter fraud at play.

The suspicion came after a man with a David Knezek T-shirt dropped off more than 250 absentee ballot applications to a part-time employee at the clerk’s office, Prusiewicz testified Wednesday. The portion of the applications that vow the deliverer has not marked or tampered with the forms were unsigned by the man, violating state election law.

Prusiewicz found a number of these ballot applications were invalid for a number of reasons, including signature discrepancies and applicants who were first-time voters, who are prohibited from absentee voting. Those voters were mailed a letter to come to City Hall in person.

Prusiewicz received another bulk delivery of absentee ballot applications from an attorney and a young man. The young man presented his driver’s license and signed for all of the submitted ballots, but there were red flags because of their “lag time.”

“The delivery time concerned me,” Prusiewicz said about some ballots being signed on July 14, but not being postmarked until July 26.

A third and final wave of ballot applications arrived by mail to City Hall on July 29. That batch also drew Prusiewicz’s attention as there were five or six applications in some envelopes, which had pre-printed address labels to the clerk’s office.

A representative from the state Bureau of Elections was in contact with Prusiewicz, and told him go forward in reviewing the ballots.

“It appears the problems arise, not because of anything improperly done by the city’s clerk office, but ... that campaigns are going out and perhaps soliciting applications,” Colombo said.

It’s illegal to solicit voters to fill out absentee ballot applications.

“We don’t know what happened to those absentee applications ...” said attorney David Cross, who appeared on Nathan’s behalf Wednesday. “Our concern is there was fraud that was noticed first by the city clerk.”

Defense attorneys for Wayne County Clerk and the Michigan Bureau of Elections argued the burden of proof was on Cross.

Colombo issued a stay on counting absentee ballots Tuesday after the lawsuit was filed. Once the clerk’s office was notified at about 1 p.m. Tuesday, Prusiewicz said he directed a “dead stop” to counting absentee ballots.

Prusiewicz brought four duffle bags full of the remaining absentee ballots to court. It will take 8-10 hours to count the remaining votes now that the injunction has been lifted, he said.

Under the advice of state officials, Prusiewicz 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.

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 Tuesday.

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.