ATLANTIC CITY — State investigators conducted their probe of absentee ballots in last year’s primary election with the help of an informant inside Councilman Marty Small’s failed mayoral campaign, an investigative report obtained by The Press of Atlantic City says.

Edward Colon Jr., assigned by the campaign to collect messenger absentee ballots from the city’s Hispanic community, recorded telephone conversations and secretly videotaped discussions with the councilman and other campaign workers, the report says. The information obtained eventually led to the indictment of Small and 13 of his campaigners on voter fraud, tampering and conspiracy charges. Jury selection in the case is set for October.

The report cites various incriminating discussions between Colon and several campaign workers, including one that directs Colon to return messenger ballots unsealed and another in which two workers instruct him to get voters’ signatures on a ballot and fill in the rest himself.

The alleged ballot tactics did not win the race, however. The Small campaign was easily defeated at the polls by Mayor Lorenzo Langford and even outdone by long-shot candidate David Tayoun, a former city police officer.

Asking questions

The state Attorney General’s Office charged in September that Small led an organized effort to manipulate messenger absentee ballots, which are designed to be used by residents who are sick or confined. But most of the discussions between Small and Colon that are detailed in the report show the councilman avoiding the topic of absentee ballots.

Colon first began asking questions about the campaign’s absentee ballot team on March 25, 2009, his first recorded conversation with Small. The councilman initially told Colon the “team” would explain the ballot process, but Colon continued to push Small for more information. He asked if he would be required to “chase down” ballots once they arrived at a voter’s home.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, that is definitely true,” Small told Colon. “Absentee ballots go out, come to the house, we talk to the people, they vote the ballot, they seal it and pretty much mail it back.”

That explanation is the most Small says on the record about how to handle the ballots, according to the report. None of the actions described by Small appear to be illegal.

The councilman is later recorded by Colon during an April 5 meeting about offering free calling cards to voters as an incentive to sign a ballot application. The idea came from Colon, who said he knew a woman who had access to the cards.

“I might have to work out something with you, where you hit her up, if you can trust her?” Small asked Colon. “Somebody get a word ... ‘Oh, they payin’ for votes with phone cards,’ it ain’t good. It’s got to be something that secret, you definitely gotta trust her. Let’s keep that (expletive) tight.”

Offering gifts for votes is illegal. But the report does not mention the calling card idea again, and the indictment does not mention it.

“I’m not a dumb guy. I haven’t touched a ballot since 2005 or been involved in absentee ballot campaigns since 2005,” Small said Tuesday. “I’m innocent. And with that, I’m going to refrain from further comment.”

The state Attorney General’s Office has a policy that its employees cannot publicly discuss its investigations.

The report does not detail how Colon came to start cooperating with state investigators. In his first recorded contact with investigators on Feb. 13, 2009, Colon told authorities he was approached with the plan to doctor absentee ballots by Henry Green, an Atlantic City resident and current city employee, while at an Atlantic City High School basketball game. Green, who had not committed to a campaign yet, told Colon that he could earn $5,000 to $10,000 for every 100 absentee ballots collected.

“That is so fictitious,” Green told The Press on Tuesday. “If that’s in the report, I wouldn’t believe anything else in the report.”

Green said that he first came in contact with Colon to discuss social programs that they hoped to operate in the city, and soon realized that helping with politics could get them heard. He said Colon had the capability to inspire people but often came off as too aggressive.

“I was shocked to find out that that was the case,” he said of Colon being an informant. “But then again, I wasn’t ’cause he was so aggressive. Now you see he had someone pushing him on the other end.”

After discussions with both the Langford and Small campaigns, Green opted to join the mayor, while Colon was adamant about aligning himself with Small.

“He was obviously focused on Marty,” Green said.

The state had already brought similar charges against Small in 2005 stemming from that year’s primary election between Langford and Beach Patrol Chief Bob Levy. Small faced 11 counts of absentee ballot fraud. An Atlantic County jury cleared him of all charges following a three-day trial.

Inside the campaign

On March 30, 2009, Small attended a meeting with members of the campaign’s absentee ballot team, the report says. During that meeting, Small told attendees that Mark “Johnny” Crumble knows the “ins and outs” of the ballots and would be running the team. Small also notes that he “was almost ‘pinched’ for this the last time.’”

The report also lists 13 calls or texts from Colon to Small’s cell phone. Most either went unanswered or consisted of brief conversations when Small couldn’t talk. Investigators detailed a April 2, 2009, conversation about absentee ballots where “Small reiterated that he was not running the ‘show.’” Small also referred questions about absentee ballots to Crumble during another phone call with Colon.

Crumble and other campaign workers were less evasive in their encounters with Colon.

During a meeting at campaign headquarters in April 2009, Colon sought advice from Crumble and fellow campaigner Ernest Storr on what to tell voters when he solicited the ballot applications.

“I just have the people bring the ballot to me and I fill them out,” Storr told Colon, according to the report. “I just did it myself, that way I knew.”

Colon told the two men that most of the Hispanic voters are older and are unaware of who the candidates are.

“Just get the ballot and have them sign it,” Storr replied.

Then Crumble warned, “Make sure you don’t let nobody sees (sic) you.”

Storr then interjected: “Right, because that’s not ... you’re not allowed to do that.”

Similar directions were given to Colon by Luquay Q. Zahir, another indicted campaign member, who allegedly told Colon to be sure that the section of the ballot that designates the messenger be left blank.

Four days later, Colon collected 11 ballot applications and provided them to investigators before submitting them to the campaign. The report says the messenger section was left blank, but voters are supposed to designate the messenger themselves. On May 14, 2009, investigators reviewed the filed absentee ballot applications at the Atlantic County Clerk’s Office and found they had been submitted with Zahir as the messenger.

Calls to Colon’s cell phone went unanswered Tuesday.

Jim Darcy, a retired FBI agent who once ran Atlantic City’s bureau, said a wired informant such as Colon can go a long way to solidifying a case because it absolves the prosecution of potential problems with a source and his background.

“Defense attorneys often go after a source’s credibility, and I’ve seen it work,” he said. “When you have someone wired, you’re eliminating any credibility issues you have with your source.”

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