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Election fraud indictment credited to minor official

Saturday, May 22, 1999

By Bill Heltzel, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A Fayette County vote fraud investigation that has snared a former congressman got started when a minor township official questioned absentee ballots.

Usually eight to 10 absentee ballots were cast in Sondra Cesarino's precinct in Wharton. But in the November 1995 election, she noticed more than 70 names on the list of absentee voters, and she recognized some as residents of the Bouras Personal Care Home, where her mother, Maetha Guthrie, was briefly a patient in 1991.

"I knew some of those people weren't capable of voting," Cesarino said. "I just knew something was wrong."

A year and a half later, after the May 1997 primary election, Cesarino challenged nine absentee ballots. Her action caught the attention of Fayette County Commissioner Sean Cavanaugh, who pressed for an investigation.

Two months ago, District Attorney Peter Hook convened a grand jury, and on Thursday charges were filed. Former U.S. Rep. Austin J. Murphy of Farmington was accused of forgery, conspiracy and tampering with public records. Also charged were Peggy Bouras, operator of the nursing home, and Shirley Hughes, township tax collector.

According to the grand jury report, they forged absentee ballots for residents of the nursing home and then wrote in Murphy's wife, Eileen, for township election judge, a job that pays $60. She won the election but declined to take the position, Cavanaugh said.

But Cavanaugh and others said the vote fraud scheme went way beyond one election and one nursing home. The grand jury is still meeting, and Assistant Prosecutor Jack Heneks Jr. has said more charges could be filed.

Murphy retired from Congress in 1994. Attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.

"This is a real testament to one person making a difference," said Deborah Phillips of the Voter Integrity Project in Arlington, Va. "People who grow up believing that the country is founded on fair and free elections can't swallow even a little bit of fraud. Sondra refused to go away. . . . She is a real American hero."

She also praised Cavanaugh, who once served on the Voter Integrity Project board but had to resign when he chose to run for re-election as county commissioner. The organization monitors vote fraud around the country.

"When elected officials won't pay attention to these problems, it's much easier for the average citizen to become discouraged and go away," Phillips said.

Cesarino has been Wharton's auditor for 16 years. She said she didn't campaign for the low-paying, bookkeeping position, and she described herself as politically naive.

She didn't even notice the unusually high number of absentee ballots until her cousin, Barbara Haase, then the elections judge, pointed them out.

"I didn't know what I was doing. I went into it blindly," she said.

Her challenge ended up consuming much of her time for the past two years. But even though charges against Murphy have vindicated her position for now, she sees no victory.

"I don't have any regrets, but I don't enjoy this for one minute. I have no joy in this."

Cavanaugh, however, was exultant yesterday.

"The dam has broken. People are going to go to jail," he said. "I don't want to come across as gloating, but I'm happy the truth is coming out."

Cavanaugh predicted that at least one high-ranking elected official, and perhaps a powerful, nonelected political official, would be charged. He said buying votes at nursing homes had been a way of life in Fayette County for at least 50 years and that vote fraud had affected the outcome of several contests.

"This is how the power structure has maintained power."

He said government was the county's biggest business and that controlling government contracts and jobs was lucrative.

"The whole key is voter fraud. That's how the power structure controls who gets elected and that's how it controls how money is spent."



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