QUEENSBURY — Supervisor John Strough and his wife, Christianne, were arrested by State Police on Monday on charges related to election fraud.
Strough, 66, a Democrat, is facing one misdemeanor count of second-degree offering a false instrument for filing. His wife, 63, is facing three misdemeanor counts of making false statements or affidavits on nominating petitions.
They were to be arraigned Monday morning in Town Court, but Judge Michael Muller recused himself. The case will be transferred to another court.
The charges refer to the Conservative Party primary that Strough lost last year. He later won the election without having the Conservative Party line, so his alleged misconduct did not affect the outcome of the race.
But last summer, he collected signatures from Conservative Party members to get on the primary ballot. Because Strough is not a Conservative Party member, by law the signatures had to be witnessed by a party member or a notary. His wife, who is a notary, signed that she had witnessed the signatures.
Republicans, supporting supervisor candidate Rachel Seeber, hired an investigator to ask party members if Christianne Strough was present when they signed the petition. A number of signers said no, and signed statements to that effect.
Strough has said his wife was present to witness each signature she signed, and fellow Democrats have alleged that signers were deliberately intimidated by the Republicans’ private investigator.
In an email Monday afternoon, Strough explained that his wife sat in his car and observed while he got signatures.
In response to the charges, Queensbury Supervisor John Strough sent the following email to The Post-Star on Monday afternoon:
“The person signing may not have noticed the person watching them from our car, but she was there. Most petition-signers were occupied and focused with signing the several petitions on my clipboard,” he wrote.
While the exact statements from the investigator have not been released yet, Strough said signers likely were only asked if they noticed a notary with him.
“Obviously some answered, ‘No.’ This does not mean a notary wasn’t present, it only means that the person signing did not notice the notary. However, in my case, the notary did witness the signatures and witnessed all of them,” he wrote.
He added that he gathered far more than the 13 signatures required for the Conservative Party petition, but only some signers said the notary was not present.
“Did I take my wife home for just those who claim she wasn’t there? NO! So I guess my opposition’s position must be: that I dropped my wife off someplace, then went to a few houses by myself, went back, picked up my wife for all the others who signed these very same petitions? Doesn’t make sense does it? Just political shenanigans. If I was Republican this issue would not have been manufactured,” he wrote.
However, the case was investigated by the Albany County District Attorney’s Office, to avoid a conflict of interest. The district attorney in Albany is a Democrat.
His spokeswoman said the office carefully reviewed the evidence and decided misdemeanor charges were appropriate.
“These charges were deemed to be the most appropriate after a thorough review of the alleged facts and circumstances of this purported crime,” said spokeswoman Cecilia Walsh.
Election law does not specify whether a notary must get out of the car during petitions, but the notary must identify each signer and ensure they know what they are signing, the Warren County election commissioners said.
“They’re under oath that this is who you are and you understand what you’re signing,” said Democratic Commissioner Beth McLaughlin.
The notary must sign a statement at the end of each page of the petition. It states: On the dates above indicated before me personally came each of the voters whose signatures appear on this petition sheet containing (fill in number) signatures, who signed same in my presence and who, being by me duly sworn, each for himself or herself, said that the foregoing statement made and subscribed by him or her was true.”
Democratic Party leaders said they would wait for the case to make its way through the court process.
“I trust the process will come to a just and fair outcome,” said town Democratic Chairman Mike Parwana.
But he noted that the complaint was brought by Republicans who were roundly rejected in last year’s general election over concerns about their ethics.
“People in glass houses shouldn’t gloat over people with a broken window,” he said.
Still, the Democrats made it clear they were concerned about the charges.
“The alleged violations, if they’re true, are obviously serious,” said county Democratic Chairwoman Lynne Boecher.
On that, the Republican county chairman agrees. He noted that the detailed and specific rules in Election Law are designed to prevent fraud.
“The petition process to secure a party line could be stolen by a party collecting signatures fraudulently,” Chairman Mike Grasso said in a press release.
A notary is required to keep a candidate from forging signatures, as has happened in the past. But the signers in this case all say they intended to sign Strough’s petition. The allegation is simply that his notary wasn’t there to witness their signatures.
Grasso went on to say that Strough might need to step down until the case is decided.
“The charge creates a serious question whether the supervisor can or should continue in this position until this serious matter is resolved,” he said.
Town Board member George Ferone, a Republican, also said the charge could affect town management.
“Regardless whether it is a personal, or business relationship, you need to have faith in the people you deal with, that they are being truthful, and dealing with issues without any hidden agendas. At this point in my tenure as councilman, I have my concerns,” he said, adding that Strough’s communication has been a problem.
Strough did email all the board members Sunday night to tell them that he would be arrested Monday morning.
But at other times, “either information is omitted, or the urgency of the matter is not communicated correctly,” Ferone said. “And then there is the amount of information disseminated to the board, it is overwhelming to the point of inefficiency.”
Democratic Town Board member Catherine Atherden defended Strough.
“I think it is a damn shame and of no benefit to the community,” she said in an email. “Supervisor Strough has lived here his entire life without a blemish to his character — an honest man — and now this. For four years a small faction of the community has been trying to smear his name. I do not know all the reasons for that, but it is quite obvious this faction will do anything to achieve their goal, and this charge proves it.”
“This ‘faction’ is not working on behalf or for the community,” she continued. “They are disrupters preventing us from doing what we signed up for. They are only sowing discord and ugliness.”
The charge Strough faces is a misdemeanor and is not considered official misconduct because the act he is accused of doing was not related to his job as supervisor. He is officially accused of filing a “false instrument” — the petition his wife signed as notary. The same act can be a felony, but only if he filed the petition “with intent to defraud” the Board of Elections.
Christianne Strough is charged with three misdemeanor counts of election fraud. In each, she is accused of making a false statement or false affidavit on a nominating petition.
The case was handled by the State Police Special Investigations Unit.