TRENTON - A state grand jury indicted Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small and 13 members of his failed mayoral campaign Thursday on voter fraud, tampering and conspiracy charges.

The indictment accuses Small, 35, of instructing his "secret army" to unseal messenger ballots from sick or shut-in voters and to destroy votes supporting opposing candidates in the June Democratic primary election for mayor.

The others indicted are accused of ensuring votes for Small by forging signatures, telling residents whom to vote for and holding an "autograph party," where workers illegally filled in and signed multiple ballot applications. Five of the 13 had been previously arrested on similar charges.

"We cannot tolerate any conduct that unlawfully deprives the citizens of the right to vote or seeks to corrupt the free and fair election process," Attorney General Anne Milgram said at a news conference Thursday.

A despondent Small, reached on his cell phone, said Thursday's development was "a shocker."

"I did absolutely nothing wrong," Small said. "All I did was run (in) an election. … Everyone that knows me knows I'm not a criminal."

The councilman declined to discuss specifics of the case against him.

Thursday's indictment is Small's second in five years, both related to alleged election crimes.

Two months after the 2005 election, in which current Mayor Lorenzo Langford lost the primary election to Beach Patrol Chief Bob Levy, Small was indicted under a different attorney general on 11 counts of similar absentee ballot fraud. Small has said the indictment and trial were an unsuccessful bid to get him to testify against former City Council President Craig Callaway and his political organization. Following a three-day trial, an Atlantic County jury cleared him of all charges in a half-hour.

Asked about that acquittal, Milgram said "I'm extremely confident in this case."

"This is not the first time the attorney general has picked a fight with Marty Small and they can expect us again to fight every step of the way like we did last time," Small's attorney Edwin J. Jacobs said Thursday. "I predict the result will be the same."

For more than a decade, Atlantic City school board and municipal elections have been influenced by large numbers of absentee and messenger ballots - with election-night results from the polls often reversed when the sealed ballots are later counted.

But Small's messenger-ballot campaign failed to change the results of the June primary. Langford defeated him by nearly 2,000 total votes. The county received a total of 1,416 absentee and messenger ballots for all candidates, and Small received only 323 votes from that total. The councilman repeatedly said publicly that he had no knowledge of his messenger-absentee ballot operation.

"I'm a candidate. I can't touch those ballots, and I'm not messing with them," he said in May. "It's not going to matter anyway, we're going to win at the polls."

Meanwhile, floods of ballot applications poured into the Atlantic County Clerk's Office as the June election neared. Most came from friends and family of Callaway, whose political organization took part in these contested elections. Clerk Ed McGettigan created more buzz about potential fraud when he rejected more than 40 percent of the applications for problems with signatures, addresses and identifications.

The state claims those inconsistencies were a result of a larger scheme to defraud the voters rights, and Small played a key role in the scheme, Milgram said.

"This is a significant case for which you have multiple different schemes to basically disenfranchise voters," Milgram said. "What is particularly notable to me in this case is we've charged several different ways in which the defendants, and you're talking about 14 defendants and the mayoral candidate himself, were working together to disenfranchise voters so that he could be elected."

Small and his cohorts used what he referred to as a "secret army" of operatives who were paid based on how many messenger ballots were collected, according to the indictment. Milgram said the group took ballots from the Atlantic County Clerk's Office back to Atlantic City, where, in a number of cases, voters never received their ballots or were able to vote.

The state charged that Small's campaign also held an "autograph party" where messengers illegally designated themselves as messengers on absentee ballots. Those designations are supposed to be filled in by the voters.

In other cases, they told voters to sign only the interior envelope and not to sign and fill out the exterior envelope, in which the voter designates the bearer who would carry the ballot back to the county elections office.

Milgram said the group also opened sealed ballots to assess the voter's selection. If they voted for Small, they resealed them and delivered them to Mays Landing. Otherwise, they were destroyed.

Milgram said "there is one instance in which we know an out-of-state voter very candidly says 'I don't live here' and is told to use a family member's address in Atlantic City for the application."

Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for Milgram, said Small was aware of the operation and, in many cases, directed the improper activity. The indictment does not allege that Small handled ballots, but is still charged with tampering and forgery.

The state had previously dealt voter fraud charges to five members of Small's campaign since the June 2 Democratic primary. Those previously charged - Toni Dixon, David Callaway, LuQuay Q. Zahir, Floyd Tally and Michele Griffin - were indicted Thursday along with eight other campaign workers. The others include Small's campaign manager Thomas Quirk, a veteran political operative in Ventnor.

Milgram distanced the Clerk's Office and county election staff from wrongdoing, saying they judged ballots based on the applicable law. But she added the investigation raised larger questions about how the absentee and messenger ballots are handled.

Deputy Attorney General Anthony Picone, who presented the case to a grand jury, said all 14 people were given summonses to appear for arraignment in Atlantic County Superior Court at a time to be determined.

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