MAYS LANDING — Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small and his campaign leaders set out to “steal an election” when they solicited voters to apply for absentee ballots in his failed 2009 mayoral bid, the state charged as Small and five co-defendants went on trial Tuesday.
Instead of letting the voters choose their own candidate, a self-proclaimed “secret army” mishandled ballots and even had a “shredding party” to get rid of the votes that didn’t go their way, Deputy Attorney General Robert Czepiel Jr. told the 18 jurors, six of whom are alternates.
Small and 13 others were indicted in September 2009 in an alleged conspiracy to disenfranchise voters. Small lost the Democratic primary to current Mayor Lorenzo Langford.
Since the arrests, two men have pleaded guilty and are expected to testify against the six defendants now on trial. The remaining six defendants are expected to be tried next year. The court determined there would be logistical problems with having all 12 tried together.
Small “is not who they say he is,” his defense attorney Stephen Funk said of the state during his opening. “He’s one of the good guys.”
But that’s not the picture the state will paint.
“We’re going to place you right at the Small campaign headquarters leading up to the election,” Czepiel told the jury.
Tapes of defendants Small, LuQuay Zahir, Toni Dixon, Floyd Tally, Tracy Pijuan and Thomas Quirk will show the inner workings of the so-called “secret army” that recruited voters to apply for absentee ballots, even though they were fully capable of getting to the polls, the deputy attorney general said.
Those same voters then either were told whom to vote for, never received their ballots — which wound up being cast anyway — or got their applications and ballots at the same time, which Czepiel said the state will prove is illegal. Some did not even live in the city, and used fictitious addresses, he alleged.
However, Funk said it was Small who was trying to get voters to exercise their electoral rights.
“His motives were good,” Funk said. “He wanted to include and enfranchise.”
On one tape, Funk said, Small is heard telling campaign worker Eddie Colon that he was happy the Hispanic man joined him, because Small wanted to reach out to that community, which he said was often overlooked and underrepresented.
What Small didn’t know was that Colon was taping campaign meetings, including that one.
Colon was in court before the jury arrived during a hearing to allow a transcript of those tapes into evidence. The defense attorneys questioned the transcripts, which included attributing a quote on the tape to Tally, when Colon — under questioning by Zahir’s attorney, Michael Schreiber — said Tuesday that it was Zahir’s voice. The judge kept the transcripts in.
Ronald Harris and Ernest Storr, who pleaded guilty in the case, are also expected to testify. Czepiel admitted to the jurors that both men have criminal records, but said evidence would show they were being truthful.
But Funk said Harris, 23 at the time of his plea, was scared and had a 2008 cocaine charge, which could have carried years in prison, hanging over his head when he made the deal last year.
Storr accepted a plea this past August, after he was confronted with discrepancies between what he testified to before a grand jury and what he is heard saying on the tapes, Funk said.
Storr insisted to the grand jury that he had no experience with absentee ballots and his previous campaign experience was limited to putting up signs for Small and for former Mayor Scott Evans.
But in taped conversations, Storr tells of his work with absentee ballots in the Evans campaign. His plea included admitting to wrongdoing in that campaign as well.
Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten had said all seven lawyers — Czepiel and the six defense attorneys — would give their opening statements Tuesday, no matter how long it took. Jurors initially were to have been seated at noon. But motions earlier in the day pushed back the trial by 2½ hours. It was another two hours until Czepiel and Funk concluded their openings, bringing the time close to 5 p.m. The jurors chose to go home and hear the remaining five attorneys Wednesday morning.
As an indicator that the jury has already grown tired of the delays, when Batten said they would start promptly at 9 a.m., several asked, “Are you sure?”
The trial is expected to last eight to 12 weeks.
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