SOUTH BLOOMING GROVE – Incumbent Mayor James LoFranco and Trustee Sue Anne Vogelsberg will remain on the March 18 election ballot, after challenges to their nominating petitions were dismissed late Monday.
Judge Craig S. Brown dismissed a lawsuit brought by George Kalaj that claimed signatures on LoFranco and Vogelsberg’s petitions were fraudulent. LaShanta Stephenson was also a plaintiff in the suit – which sought to remove the incumbents from the ballot – but Brown dismissed her claim after she failed to honor subpoenas to show up in court.
Kalaj is running for mayor and Stephenson for a trustee position.
The plaintiffs had also named Village Clerk Kerry Dougherty and the Orange County Board of Elections in their suit. Incumbent Trustee James Mullany, whose seat is up for election as well, was also named in the lawsuit; the claim against him was dropped after he died Feb. 25.
“Although disappointed with the decision, we’re happy that the court reviewed it on the merits of the case rather than the spurious allegations of impropriety against my clients,” Daniel Szalkiewicz, attorney for Kalaj and Stephenson, said Tuesday.
The defense had filed a counter-claim charging abuse of the election process, but Brown dismissed that claim without prejudice, meaning a new lawsuit could be filed with those charges.
Brittany Cordero, who defended LoFranco and Vogelsberg for Lawrence A. Garvey & Associates, said the decision set “a clear precedent that intimidation and manipulation of the election process will not be tolerated.”
“The petitioners’ accusations made about events that occurred in the Village of South Blooming Grove were designed to disenfranchise voters, harass candidates, and abuse the integrity of fair access to the ballot,” Cordero said on Tuesday.
Village attorney Joseph McKay defended Dougherty in the case, and said testimony exposed the possibility that the plaintiffs were figureheads for other entities.
“Village residents are very pleased with today’s decision,” McKay said Monday night. “The sworn deposition testimony demonstrated that the petitioners are likely strawmen or puppet candidates who have entered the race to serve the interests of other people. This lawsuit is similar to other recent election cases brought to intimidate local officials into withdrawing their election bids.
“Mayor LoFranco and Trustee Vogelsberg refused to be intimidated, vigorously defended themselves, and won the right to be on the March ballot.”
McKay was referring to testimony given by Kalaj on March 4. A transcript of the testimony was not allowed to be read into public record during a hearing the following day, because Kalaj did not show up to sign off on it, but Brown read it under seal and revealed parts of it in his decision.
“Petitioner Kalaj never saw or read the petition filed with the court,” Brown’s decision said. “Further, Mr. Kalaj testified under oath that he had never seen or read the Village Independent Nominating Petitions that he’s alleging to be fraudulent.”
Brown allowed that Kalaj’s attorney’s list of objections with a reference key was sufficient to educate his client, so a defense motion to dismiss Kalaj’s claims on those grounds was denied.