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Queensbury town supervisor and wife arrested on election fraud charges

Chris Strough

John Strough

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.

“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.

Post-Star file photo  

Cambridge-Greenwich Police Chief George Bell, center, speaks during a news conference in December 2016 at the Greenwich police station. Bell died overnight Sunday from a suspected heart attack.

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Longtime Cambridge-Greenwich Police chief dies

CAMBRIDGE — Longtime Cambridge-Greenwich Police Chief George Bell died late Sunday from a suspected heart attack, stunning the local law enforcement community and residents of the villages he served tirelessly for decades.

Police were called to his girlfriend’s home in the village of Cambridge around 11 p.m. Sunday, where he had passed out after feeling ill earlier in the day. When word spread of his passing in the pre-dawn hours Monday, more than 30 police cars from around the region came to his home to escort his body to a funeral home, his patrol car being driven to lead the way.

Bell, 64, had worked in local law enforcement for nearly 40 years, the last 20 of which he spent overseeing the police department in the village of Cambridge and then adding oversight of the village of Greenwich’s department as well.

The loss was a blow to local law enforcement, where the affable Bell was beloved for never turning down a call or assignment and for his community involvement as a lifelong resident of the Cambridge area. He was always quick with a joke or one-liner, and many local police officers got the start to their careers working for Bell in Cambridge or Greenwich.

“It will be a great loss for the villages,” Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy said. “He was really dedicated, particularly to those two villages.”

Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan said Bell’s passing was “profoundly sad.”

“It’s a terrible day for his family and the community but especially for all of us in law enforcement,” Jordan said. “He was just a nice guy. I will miss him terribly.”

Murphy began his police career in Washington County in 1979 and said he remembered Bell already on the job as a young sheriff’s deputy at the time.

“He was a really nice guy,” Murphy said.

“Washington County was truly blessed by his dedication to law enforcement and his community,” added State Police Senior Investigator Robert Stampfli, who supervises State Police investigators in Washington County. “He truly loved his community.”

“Regardless of the time of day or night, George would always answer the call and respond to whatever,” Washington County Public Safety Director Glen Gosnell posted on Facebook. “I had the opportunity and honor of working for George as a patrol officer for the Cambridge Police Department, he was one of the best bosses I have ever worked for. Without a doubt, Chief George Bell truly and deeply cared about the citizens of the community.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, also offered her condolences on social media, posting, “The passing of Cambridge-Greenwich Police Chief George Bell is tragic news. George was dedicated to public service and safety, and this is a huge loss for everyone who knew and worked with him. Please join me in keeping George’s family and colleagues in your prayers.”

Bell took over as Cambridge police chief in May 1998 after spending 19 years with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, where he had risen to the rank of lieutenant. He later became chief of the Greenwich Police Department as well, through an agreement between the villages to share police administration.

“When George took over, this department was a mess,” former Washington County Sheriff Robert Endee said in 2002. “He’s turned it into a good little police department.”

He led the massive investigation into the disappearance of 12-year-old Greenwich boy Jaliek Rainwalker, a case that he swore would be solved during his tenure.

Murphy said the Sheriff’s Office has offered administrative assistance to the villages with their police departments until they figure out a course of action for their police departments. Greenwich Mayor Pam Fuller said her village planned to take the sheriff up on the offer before determining how to move forward.

“George did so much. He was the Police Department,” she said. “It’s such a sad day for the villages of Greenwich and Cambridge. He was such a dedicated guy.”

Cambridge Mayor Carman Bogle said Patrolman Bruce Brundige will serve as the department’s supervisor, assisted by the Sheriff’s Office, going forward.

“It’s amazing how many people we have needed to pull together today just to do his job,” Bogle said.

The sudden death was the third in less than four years of longtime Washington County police officers taken far too young. Former Hudson Falls Police Detective Rick Diamond died late last year at the age of 59 and sheriff’s Senior Investigator Bruce Hamilton died at age 55 in 2014.

Calling hours for Bell will be held from from 2 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Cambridge United Presbyterian Church, with a funeral service set for 11 a.m. Friday at the church.

Cambridge Central School District released a statement Monday saying it would be closed Friday because of an anticipated absence of students, faculty and staff attending Bell’s funeral or supporting the girls’ basketball team as they play in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s state championship at 10 a.m. Friday at Hudson Valley Community College.

Supervisor John Strough's response

In response to the charges, Queensbury Supervisor John Strough sent the following email to The Post-Star on Monday afternoon:

I have lived in this town for about 60 years and have worked very hard to make it a better place to live. There are many who know me and know me for my honesty, integrity, and accomplishments: taught school for 37 years, built trails to improve public health, installed roundabouts to improve public safety, worked to improve the town’s administrative and fiscal well-being, supported community cultural events and much more. Many know my family too: my wife, involved in many cultural and community events; my son, a registered nurse; and my daughter, a mother and teacher; all of us are law abiding, honest and hard working. Why would anyone want to maliciously harm them?

Am I wrong? The American way of running for an office is to put forward your honesty, experience and ideas. Let the voters decide.

The charges against my wife and I are strictly political in origin.

I believe that this issue was manufactured previous to the election in an attempt to tarnish my reputation and earn votes for my opposition. I understand that Mike Grosso, Republican Party Chairman, used committee money to pay for an investigator. Who probably asked, “Did you see a notary?” 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.

Again, in fact, there was a notary present for each and every signature. 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. They held, flipped the petitions, and signed each — they were not looking around to see if a notary was present.

More importantly, these signers were interviewed several months after the fact! What happened yesterday?

The charge is that I obtained signatures for the Conservative Party’s endorsement without a notary. That is patently not true. My wife is a notary and was present for every signature. Period.

What doesn’t align with the charges are the facts:

1. Chris, my wife and notary for 40 years, was my notary and present for each and every signature.

2. I only needed about 13 signatures. I carried several petitions in addition to my own and obtained many signatures beyond what was required. What would be my motive for obtaining signatures without a notary?

3. Those who signed said that they did not notice the presence of a notary. 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.

Again, I hope that nice wins over nasty.

John Strough

Cuomo targets seven NRA-backed New York politicians in attack ads

ALBANY — Nearly a month after the Parkland, Florida, school mass shooting, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is set to kick off a gun-control campaign touting his work on the issue and targeting seven New York congressional Republicans.

The six-figure campaign, which kicks off this week, will include a mix of television and digital ads and an online petition effort organizers say is meant to galvanize grassroots support.

The TV ad, titled “He Acted,” highlights Cuomo’s success in passing the tough gun control bill known as the SAFE Act in 2013, just weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.

“When Sandy Hook happened, Gov. Cuomo did what everyone else did in America, he grieved,” the ad says. “Then he did what few dared to — he acted, passing the strongest gun law in the nation, banning the sale of assault weapons in New York State.”

The ad, which was paid for by the state Democratic Party Cuomo controls, also cites his current push for a law that would take guns from all convicted domestic abusers and his call to “stop Washington from allowing concealed weapons to cross state lines.”

“That’s how you lead the nation in gun safety, with a leader with the guts to fight for it,” the election campaign-like ad concludes.

Meanwhile, the state party is also set to launch email and online petitions “to reach 2018 voters statewide and galvanize grassroots support behind the governor’s gun violence agenda,” a Democratic strategist involved in the effort said.

And it will unleash a digital and social media ad campaign targeting seven of New York’s nine congressional Republicans.

Listing the names of the seven, one digital ad proclaims “New York Republicans in the pocket of the NRA.”

There are also individual digital ads on each of the seven. In all but one, the ads outline how much the individual lawmaker received in NRA contributions and highlights their “A” ratings from the powerful pro-gun group.

The seven targeted GOPers are Reps. Lee Zeldin (Suffolk County), John Faso (Columbia County), Elise Stefanik (Essex County in the Adirondacks), Claudia Tenney (Oneida County), Tom Reed (Steuben County in the Southern Tier), John Katko (Syracuse) and Chris Collins (Erie County).

The only two congressional Republicans not targeted are Reps. Pete King, of Long Island, and Dan Donovan of Staten Island.

The Democratic strategist involved in the effort said that Cuomo continues the gun control fight even though he suffered politically among Republicans and voters upstate and in the Hudson Valley after passage of the SAFE Act, which “was the right thing to do.”

“So on the one hand, you have a governor who has taken on the NRA and passed the toughest gun law in the nation, and on the other hand you have the New York congressional members of the GOP — the straight ‘A’ students of the NRA,” the strategist said.

“We love that contrast and that’s what this campaign will be reminding voters about from now until November.”

Rebecca Fischer, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, praised the impact of the SAFE Act and said the governor’s new campaign “will continue to put much needed focus and pressure on Washington. The gaping holes in our federal laws are deadly for the country and for New Yorkers.”

She added that there is also more than can be done on the state level such as keeping guns away from individuals who are dangerous to themselves and others.

State Republican Party spokeswoman Jessica Proud charged that the effort is designed more to help Cuomo run for President in 2020.

“He should focus more on cleaning up his administration and fixing the problems of the state — the worst economic outlook and the decimated MTA,” Proud said. “Stop meddling in national issues and focus on fixing the problems of the state.”

Tom King, an NRA board member and president of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, said he prefers to see Cuomo and the Democratic Party “use the money to strengthen the security at the schools rather than on this foolish political garbage.”

Chris Martin, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that “voters have no interest in Andrew Cuomo bringing his liberal New York City values to their communities”

“This is nothing more than a cheap political stunt to shift attention away from the ongoing federal trial of the most senior staff in his corrupt administration,” Martin said.

Lenny Alcivar, a campaign spokesman for Stefanik, said in an emailed statement to The Post-Star on Monday that Stefanik “is a strong supporter of both the 2nd Amendment and of commonsense, bipartisan reforms to protect our children and prevent gun violence in schools.

“This week, the House is voting on the STOP School Violence Act of 2018, legislation co-sponsored by Stefanik that would invest in early intervention and prevention programs to stop school violence before it happens,” he wrote.