Three Democrats challenging two incumbents in this year’s City Council race fought back this week against allegations that hundreds of signatures they gathered to qualify for a primary next month were fraudulent, saying that it was an attempt by Democratic Party leaders to keep them off the ballot.
But after a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, they bowed out of the race, saying they were doing so because a judge had thrown out hundreds of signatures required to get on the ballot.
“Sometimes the good guys win, and sometimes the good guys don’t,” said John Ciampoli, an attorney representing candidates Barbara Bernardino, Joe Miccio and Runnie Myles. “Part of our decision was not only where we were at, but where we were going. In order to go and start verifying those signatures, we would have literally had to bring in hundreds of people to confirm that they signed it. The burden was being shifted on these candidates and the community, where people did nothing wrong other than sign a petition.”
"It has always been my intention to see this process through," Myles added. "The people deserve a primary, and now my hands are tied."
Incumbent council members Scott Mandel and Chumi Diamond, along with Darlene Tangney, chairwoman of the Independent Democratic Club of Long Beach, filed a lawsuit in Nassau County State Supreme Court on July 26 in an attempt to have the signatures gathered by Bernardino, Miccio and Myles declared null and void, and have their names removed from the ballot.
Miccio said that his slate gathered nearly 1,300 signatures, more than the 500 that they said was required to get on the ballot. The Board of Elections determined that determined that 855 of those were valid.
But attorneys for the Independent Democrats contended that 445 of those signatures were forged, and that the minimum number of signatures to get on the ballot this year was 641.
At the news conference, outside the Supreme Court building, Miccio, a retired FDNY firefighter, and his running mates criticized party leaders.
“They’re trying to make a fraud out of me, out of my running mates as candidates,” said Miccio, who became emotional at times during Wednesday’s hearing, at which State Supreme Court Justice James McCormack reviewed petition signatures, checking for irregularities. “And it’s reckless, beyond negligence and misconduct to do this.”
In May, Nassau County Democratic Committee Chairman Jay Jacobs said that the party was backing Mandel and Diamond for City Council this year — as well as newcomer John Bendo, the president of the West End Neighbors Civic Association — even though Bernardino, Miccio and Myles received the Long Beach Democratic Committee’s nomination at the party’s convention that month.
“The opposition candidates, Scott Mandel and Chumi Diamond, and the county party boss have been dragging in citizens from all over Long Beach . . . in an attempt to quash the voices of each person who signed a petition to have Barbara Bernardino, Runnie Myles and me run for City Council,” Miccio told reporters. “They’ve gone to great lengths to hire high-powered, expensive law firms, and we’ve been doing the best we could to take on the incumbents and the machine and the Democratic Nassau County party boss.”
Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos, who is running as a Democrat for county executive this year, announced his support for the local committee’s slate and also criticized Jacobs, saying that he has forced other Democrats out of primaries this year.
Jacobs had not returned a request for comment as the Herald went to press on Wednesday.
It was unclear at press time whether McCormack would issue a ruling in the case. The lawsuit claims that the petitions do not contain the minimum number of valid signatures of voters; that many were not personally signed by those whose names appear on them, and were instead signed without their authority or knowledge; that many of those who signed were not registered to vote at the residences given, and their signatures are therefore invalid; and that many signers provided the wrong party affiliation. The suit also alleges that the petition sheets were subsequently altered and filled with fraudulent dates and signatures, among many other claims.
McCormack rejected the defendants’ request to dismiss the lawsuit before he began the process of reviewing the signatures. He also rejected a request to recuse himself after the challengers expressed concerns about potential conflicts of interest, because Mandel and Diamond both work as Nassau County law secretaries.
On Wednesday, McCormack had ruled that many of the signatures were fraudulent. Ciampoli had argued that while some of the signatures may be invalid because voters were not registered Democrats, had incorrect addresses or because of other technicalities, they did not constitute fraud.
“To make the conjecture that someone who has committed a forgery who signed their own name or committed fraud who signed their own name, that’s a reach,” Myles told reporters.
“The interpretation has been very narrow,” Miccio said of McCormack’s actions.
Several witnesses testified on behalf of the defendants. One recanted testimony she had given last week, saying that Miccio had asked her to add her signature — and that of her husband’s — to his petition while at her home during a block party on a Saturday in July.
On Wednesday, the woman said that she, in fact, recalled signing Miccio’s petition back in June on the beach during a volleyball game.
“The lawyers hired by Mandel and Diamond never bothered to investigate [the block party],” Miccio said. “Meanwhile, the signature petition that she testified to was the same date but a different month. Her family went through hell, my family and I have gone through hell, and today she came in and testified about the mistake that was brought to her attention.”
Attorneys for Mandel and Diamond did not immediately return calls for comment. In a statement, Mandel and Diamond said that they are now focused on campaigning aggressively in the general election, alongside candidate John Bendo, who had declined to be included in the suit.
"I look forward to continuing my work delivering for Long Beach on the City Council," Diamond said. "[I] am looking forward to making our city more resilient, protecting our environment, and planning for smart and sustainable development."
"I look forward to continuing to speak with as many people in Long Beach as possible so we can work together to keep our city on track," Mandel said.
Though McCormack's review of the signatures had yet to be completed — a ruling wasn't expected until Friday — Ciampoli and Miccio said they had decided to drop out of the race, and that there was not enough time, money or resources to continue the fight. They waived their right to appeal the case, but continued to dispute the fraud and forgery allegations. Those with knowledge of the case, who declined to be identified, said it was likely that McCormack would have invalidated the petitions, and that the challengers also were concerned that a final ruling might have determined the signatures were fraudulent.
“There was nothing we could do,” Miccio said. “We’re disappointed. We saw what was coming, and there was no way we can defend the people who supported us, and how do we drag them all up here? That was impossible for us to accomplish. All of those people who signed were snubbed.”