Four Connecticut campaign workers charged with mishandling absentee ballots in 2019 mayoral primary

A Democratic Party official involved in a voting scandal that caused a judge to order a rerun of last year's mayoral election in Connecticut's largest city was arrested Tuesday and has been charged along with a city council member and two campaign workers with mishandling absentee ballots during a different election in 2019.

Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee Vice Chairperson Wanda Geter-Pataky, City Council Member Alfredo Castillo and the two campaign workers were each charged with unlawful possession of absentee ballots and other violations of elections law.

All four are accused of manipulating the absentee ballot system during the city’s 2019 Democratic primary, in which the incumbent mayor backed by the town committee, Joe Ganim, defeated state Sen. Marilyn Moore by just 270 votes.

Prosecutors said some of the defendants misled voters about eligibility requirements for absentee ballots, told people which candidates to vote for, were improperly present when ballots were filled out and violated rules for handling both absentee ballot applications and the ballots themselves.

“I hope these prosecutions will send a message that deters tampering with election results in the future in Connecticut,” Chief State’s Attorney Patrick J. Griffin said in a written statement.

Geter-Pataky and the two workers, Nilsa Heredia and Josephine Edmonds, were also charged with tampering with a witness during the investigation. Prosecutors didn't immediately say which candidates each of the four defendants supported.

Geter-Pataky didn't immediately return a message seeking comment. Her lawyer, John Gulash, declined to comment on the allegations and said he was gathering information about the case.

A man who answered Castillo’s cellphone referred all calls to his lawyer. A message was left with Dennis Bradley, a former attorney who represented Castillo in a prior matter. An email was also sent to Castillo’s city email address.

Phone numbers listed for Edmonds and Heredia either were not in operation or went unanswered.

While the charges relate to the 2019 race, Geter-Pataky was a key player in another episode involving absentee ballots that upended the 2023 mayoral contest.

A judge ordered a new election in the race between Ganim and John Gomes after surveillance videos surfaced showing people stuffing multiple absentee ballots into outdoor collection boxes during the Democratic primary. Gomes contended that one of those people stuffing the boxes was Geter-Pataky.

During a court hearing in October, Geter-Pataky exercised her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to answer questions.

The videos helped fuel skepticism about the security of U.S. elections, as well as conspiracy theories involving the 2020 presidential election.

Ganim has repeatedly denied any knowledge of wrongdoing related to ballots. He was convicted of corruption during a first stint as mayor, but won his old job back in an election after his release from prison,

“Whether it's people accused from the Moore campaign or my campaign -- any irregularity is unacceptable," Ganim said in a statement after the announcement of Tuesday's arrests. "We all agree that the integrity of the voting process is vital to our democracy.”

Moore confirmed Tuesday that Edmonds was on her campaign payroll in 2019. While the senator said she remembers the woman's name, Moore said she's not sure who Edmonds is.

Moore, who is retiring from the state Senate, said she is disappointed someone on her campaign has been accused of mishandling ballots.

“I ran on integrity and I also ran on integrity for my Senate campaign. That's what I tried to foster, integrity in all campaigns,” she said in an interview. “That I had a person doing the opposite bothers me, especially knowing who I am and knowing that I don't cut corners on anything.”

In the latest race, Ganim ultimately won reelection in an unusual general election held in February. He easily defeated Gomes, the city’s former acting chief administrative officer who had originally gone to court to get the primary rerun on the grounds that the original result was tainted. It marked the fourth straight time Ganim had beaten Gomes in the messy race, including the voided primary in September, a nullified general election in November and a rerun primary in January.

Tuesday’s arrests were years in the making.

The Secretary of the State’s Office had sent a formal letter of referral regarding possible wrongdoing to the State Elections Enforcement Commission following the September 2019 primary. SEEC, however, didn’t refer the evidence of alleged criminal conduct it had uncovered to state prosecutors until June 7, 2023.

Several voters in 2019 filed a lawsuit seeking a new primary election — which a judge ultimately denied -- over problems reported with absentee ballots in the close race between Ganim and Moore. Nearly a dozen voters testified in court they had cast absentee ballots even though they were not qualified to do so.

“Five years is much too long to prosecute a case. Look at the things that have happened since that case in Bridgeport with absentee ballots,” Moore said, referring to irregularities surrounding both local and state elections in Bridgeport. “They're all impacted by this because those people continued to do something underhanded in all of those elections.”

Edmonds turned herself in to authorities on Monday and the other three turned themselves in on Tuesday, according to the prosecutor's office.

All four defendants were released on promises to appear in Bridgeport Superior Court on June 24.