TROY, NY – Correction officers at Rensselaer County Jail pushed to register inmates to vote in last fall’s primary and general election as part of an effort to unseat Sheriff Jack Mahar.
State and federal law enforcement agencies have launched broad investigations into the activities of the correction officers, including whether their initiative to garner inmates’ votes violated state or federal laws. The probes are part of a broader investigation that began when a group of correction officers accused their labor leaders of fraud and looting union dues for personal use.
The Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Attorney’s office are involved in the investigation, according to two people briefed on the matter. The investigations follow years of documented civil rights violations inside the county correctional facility, including systemic beatings of prisoners, strip-search policies that were declared unconstitutional by a federal court and sexual assaults of inmates.
Representatives for the U.S. Attorney’s office and the state attorney general declined comment.
Mahar won re-election to his third term as sheriff in November. He was challenged by Gary Gordon, a former Troy police sergeant who is an investigator with the Rensselaer County district attorney’s office. Gordon received strong campaign support, including cash donations, from Mark A. Piche and Kevin Rogers, who were the longtime leaders of a labor organization that represents the jail’s roughly 180 correction officers.
Mahar recently suspended Piche and Rogers from their jobs for undisclosed reasons. A person familiar with the matter said the men were removed from duty because they’re a focus of the outside criminal investigations.
Last October, Rogers allegedly dropped off about 140 voter registration forms at the county Board of Elections, according to an employee there. Many of the registration forms, including one filled out and signed by Rogers, were for people who sought to register in — or change their enrollment to — the Conservative Party.
Gordon, a Democrat, won the Conservative primary over Mahar by a narrow margin. Mahar, a Republican, then won the general election by more than 4,000 votes. The campaign was heated, with both sides accusing the other of misconduct.
Gordon acknowledged that he was uncomfortable with his campaign’s effort to enroll inmates to vote.
“There came a point in time during my campaign that I became aware of a drive to get Conservative voters, to get people to register,” Gordon said. “Shortly after that there was discussion to talk to inmates, to get inmates to register, and I put a stop to that. … I don’t even know who was in the room when we were discussing it. Piche or Rogers may have been there. The decision was made not to solicit inmates.”
Piche was president and Rogers was vice president of the jail officers’ labor group, Sheriffs Employees Association of Rensselaer County (SEARCO). They could not be reached for comment.
Correction officers are prohibited from soliciting votes from inmates or helping them register to vote. Courts have held that guards have an inherent power over inmates and strict policies limit their interaction. Most correctional facilities use inmate-services’ offices to assist inmates in legal matters, including requests to vote.
Larry Bugbee, the county’s Republican elections commissioner, said “at least four” of the 140 registration forms received from Rogers were for inmates.
One of the forms is attributed to Joseph Esposito, 42, who was incarcerated at the county jail from last June until his release on Jan. 24. The form bears a signature of Esposito’s name and is dated Sept. 28, when he was incarcerated. Like the others, it was a request to enroll in the Conservative Party.
Another enrollment form, dated Oct. 10, carries a signature for John W. Baldauf, 49. Records show Baldauf was incarcerated at the jail from Sept. 16, 2011, until Feb. 2. Details of the arrest records for Esposito and Baldauf were not immediately available over the weekend.
Bugbee said he does not believe the inmate registrations were a factor in the election for sheriff.
“Almost all of them were from people already registered to vote,” Bugbee said. “Most were change of enrollments. It wouldn’t have made a difference in last year’s primary or general election. The ones that were new (voters), they never even voted.”
Bugbee said it’s uncommon for inmates to invoke their voting privileges from jail.
The sheriff’s race grew heated in its final days. Less than a week before the Nov. 8 election, Mahar released recordings of telephone calls that he said were conversations between Gordon and correction officers.
The taped conversations included discussions about the handling of traffic tickets of friends or relatives of the correction officers, and Gordon’s ability to assist in those matters. The calls were recorded by a jail computer server that captures audio of incoming and outgoing telephone calls, even those not involving inmates.
Piche recently said he believes the recordings were made illegally. Many law enforcement agencies have telephone systems that record calls.
Mahar said the conversations centered on whether Gordon could “fix” tickets in exchange for the continuing campaign support of the jail officers. Mahar asked federal authorities and the state attorney general’s office to investigate.
“I’m unsure of how the investigation is going … but I do know it’s going,” Mahar said Saturday.
Gordon said he’s never used his connections as a district attorney’s investigator or former police officer to “fix” a ticket for anyone.
“It was cast that way because that’s how Jack Mahar needed it to be cast. He used that as a vehicle to win this election,” Gordon said, adding that he may run for sheriff again in four years. “I have never spoken to a prosecutor for anybody regarding a ticket, never in my life. … I’ve never spoken to a judge. I wouldn’t abuse my position to do something like that. I don’t commit crimes.”
Gordon said no one from the attorney general’s office has contacted him.
The outside investigations are also examining the finances of the jail officers’ labor organization. Until a few weeks ago, Piche and Rogers headed the organization they helped create in 2004. Officers said they never held elections and didn’t keep minutes of any meetings, nor did they make their financial expenditures available for review.
Piche and Rogers were replaced as leaders recently when a new board of directors was elected in a vote ordered by a state Supreme Court judge.
The judicial order was in response to a civil complaint filed by a group of corrections officers accusing Piche and Rogers of fraud and misappropriation of money.
Banking records obtained by the Times Union show the organization’s leaders spent tens of thousands of dollars of employee dues at restaurants, strip clubs, bars, on parties, cable and telephone bills, and to make contributions to political campaigns and organizations in which they had a personal interest.
From The Times Union.