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Judge Mendez grants election recounts in Atlantic City, Pleasantville

ATLANTIC CITY — A judge granted requests for election recounts Monday to two candidates who were ahead at the polls Nov. 5 but lost after hundreds of mail-in ballots flipped the results.

Republican 5th Ward Atlantic City Council candidate Sharon Zappia and Pleasantville school board candidate Doris Rowell asked for the recounts in the tight elections, to be sure each ballot was properly recorded.

Rowell said the recount is also a precursor to contesting her election, alleging illegal votes were counted.

She lost by 36 votes with 2,668 ballots cast (each voting for three open seats). Zappia said she is considering contesting her race.

Judge Julio Mendez ordered that all paperwork and “paraphernalia” related to the election be preserved under lock and key by the Board of Elections and other election officials, including the envelopes in which mail-in ballots were sent and mail-in ballot applications.

If the elections are contested and candidates can show fraud occurred, a judge can order a new election, said Atlantic County Board of Elections Chair Lynn Caterson.

The recount and recheck will only involve making sure the voting machine counts were correct, and hand counting every paper ballot to be sure they were counted correctly by a scanning machine, Mendez emphasized.

He encouraged the candidates to seek advise of counsel if they proceed to contest the election.

“I will challenge,” Rowell said after the proceedings, adding she believes votes-by-mail were improperly used in her election. “I am a taxpayer. People came out and voted for me. People’s votes are being taken away. We are going to take back our schools.”

Caterson said the board will conduct machine recounts Tuesday at 1 p.m. in the voting machine storage facility in Northfield, and hand counts of all paper ballots — provisional and mail-in votes — Wednesday starting at 2 p.m. at the board office in Mays Landing.

In Atlantic City’s 5th Ward race Muhammad “Anjum” Zia defeated Republican Zappia by 83 votes, according to certified election results.

Zappia received more votes at the polling stations and held a 71-vote lead on election night. But Zia received 221 mail-in ballots, 25 provisionals and two hand counts to Zappia’s 75, 19, and 0, respectively.

In Pleasantville, Jerome Page easily won his bid for re-election. But for his running mates, newcomers Ta’Shona Sparkmon and Rowell, an election night lead was destroyed by more than 700 mail-in and messenger ballots.

The other two winners instead were Juanita Pryce and Alejandrina Alberto, who are affiliated with a different faction on the board. Alberto leads Rowell by just 36 votes in the certified results.

Democratic political operatives Craig Callaway and Dave Callaway were in the audience with Zia, whom they supported, they said after the proceedings.

The Callaways are known to run an organization that encourages the use of vote-by-mail ballots and messenger ballots. The candidates they support often win through votes by mail.

“All votes are votes,” Craig Callaway said. “There is no difference between a vote by mail and one at the machine.”

He said if it’s an indication of fraud that the vast majority of vote-by-mails went to one faction’s candidates, it’s also an indication of fraud that most votes went to the other faction’s candidates at the polls.

“Fraud is fraud,” Craig Callaway said. “They want to make it look like all fraud is through vote-by-mail.”

He said there are more stringent controls on votes by mail, including checking of every signature. But Caterson said poll workers also check every signature, and many who voted with provisional paper ballots this year had to do so because their signatures were challenged by poll workers and required investigation.

“Most poll workers are there for the paycheck,” Dave Calloway said. “They don’t care.”

Votes at the polls are secret ballots. Votes by mail may allow an opportunity for someone to pressure or buy votes in a certain direction, and watch someone fill out a paper ballot to see how they vote.

State laws that created voter confusion and a flood of mail-in ballots in 2018 and 2019 elections were voided late last month by a state panel.

The New Jersey Council on Local Mandates ruled in favor of the New Jersey Association of Counties, which had sued the state, calling the laws unfunded mandates, said John G. Donnadio, executive director of the association.

The new law created a spike in the number of mail-in ballots Atlantic County had to process this year. This year alone, about 20,000 mail-in ballots were sent to voters in Atlantic County, and 9,700 were returned and counted, Caterson said. The last time the Assembly was at the top of the ticket, in 2015, 4,532 mail-in ballots were cast in Atlantic County.

Lawsuit: Ex-Cardinal McCarrick abused boy in Newark in 1990s

NEWARK — Former Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick abused a teenage boy in the 1990s when he was leader of the Archdiocese of Newark, alleges a lawsuit filed under a newly enacted New Jersey law that gives accusers more time to make legal claims.

Another lawsuit filed by two of six sisters alleges that a now-deceased priest who had previously worked for the archdiocese abused them and their siblings for nearly 10 years after he was transferred to Pennsylvania.

“This is a momentous day for our family because we can finally move forward in our search for justice,” one of the sisters, Patty Fortney-Julius, said at a news conference Monday.

A law that was passed by New Jersey in the spring and went into effect Sunday allows child sex abuse victims to sue until they turn 55, or within seven years of their first realization the abuse caused them harm. The previous limit was two years.

Both lawsuits announced Monday seek unspecified punitive damages.

Fortney-Julius and her sisters allege the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark knew that Augustine Giella had abused children well before their abuse began in the early 1980s, after his transfer to the Harrisburg diocese.

Her sister, Lara Fortney-McKeever, recalled through tears Monday how Giella came to her fifth-grade classroom seeking volunteers for jobs around the rectory.

“I quickly raised my hand,” she said. “That is the day I have regretted for over three decades, and it will haunt me for the rest of my life. I introduced this monster to my entire family, and it shattered us.”

In an emailed statement, the Newark archdiocese said it “will continue to cooperate and work with victims, their legal representatives and law enforcement authorities in an ongoing effort to resolve allegations made and bring closure to victims.”

A message left seeking comment from the Harrisburg diocese wasn’t immediately returned.

The sisters’ accounts were among hundreds in last year’s investigation on clergy sexual abuse conducted by a Pennsylvania grand jury that provided impetus for New Jersey legislators to act this year.

About two dozen states have changed their laws on statutes of limitations this year, and several others have created so-called lookback windows for lawsuits, as New Jersey has. The Fortney sisters sued in New Jersey because Pennsylvania lawmakers declined to pass a lookback provision this month.

McCarrick, who also served as archbishop of Washington, D.C., and was one of the highest-ranking, most visible Catholic Church officials in the United States, was defrocked in February at age 89 after a church investigation determined he sexually abused minors, as well as adult seminarians.

In a lawsuit filed Monday, John Bellocchio alleges McCarrick sexually assaulted him when he was 14 and McCarrick was visiting Bellocchio’s parish in Hackensack. Bellocchio’s attorney, Jeff Anderson, said his client’s lawsuit is the first to name McCarrick as a defendant.

It also names the Newark archdiocese as a defendant, but not Vatican officials. It does, however, allege Vatican officials were aware of McCarrick’s behavior yet continued to promote him to ever higher positions.

“He never would have been able to do the things he did and rise up the ranks the way he did without their complicity or consent, implied or otherwise,” Bellocchio, now 37, said at a news conference.

Anderson said McCarrick is living at a friary in Kansas but Anderson will seek to take a statement from McCarrick “as soon as possible, given his age.”

The Associated Press was unable to immediately find a contact for McCarrick or a representative who could comment on his behalf.

The AP does not name typically name people alleging sexual abuse unless they provide their consent. The plaintiffs in these lawsuits have come forward publicly, and the sisters testified this year at the New Jersey State House.

Atlantic City promotes 24 police sergeants, 3 officers

ATLANTIC CITY — The Police Department promoted 27 people Monday morning in the largest single promotion ceremony ever held for city law enforcement.

The department elevated 24 officers to the rank of sergeant and promoted three special law enforcement Class II officers to full-time cops during a swearing-in ceremony at the Atlantic City Convention Center. The department now has a total of 57 sergeants, who earn a starting salary of $100,000 per year.

Chief Henry White told the promoted sergeants that they were the “most important and most critical” supervisory ranks in the department. White said they now had a “burden put on each one of your shoulders to inspire and motivate our officers to go out and service our community.”

“They are the ones that are closest to our rank-and-file officers,” White said. “And when someone judges our police department on our efficiency and our effectiveness, they do that based on their interaction with our rank-and-file officers because that’s who the public sees on a daily basis. And these sergeants, who are about to get promoted ... it’s their job to inspire, to motivate, to train, to coach the rank-and-file officers to do what needs to be done.”

The new sergeants will begin in-house supervisory training Tuesday, White said.

Sergeants are responsible for supervising more than 300 public safety employees, including 186 rank-and-file officers, special law enforcement officers and civilian workers.

Mayor Marty Small Sr. implored the elevated officers to “continue to do what got you here,” during his first swearing-in ceremony for the police department. Small also applauded the group’s diverse makeup.

“This is what diversity looks like,” Small said, “and we want to continue to promote that (with) all of the decisions that we make. These people are highly qualified ... and I couldn’t ask for a better group.”

Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner encouraged the sergeants to use lessons learned from who they consider to be great leaders in their new positions.

“Take this as an opportunity to leave a legacy of your career, to make an imprint on that Class II that’s becoming a police officer,” Tyner said. “Be that type of leader.”

The 24 sergeants were selected from nearly 100 applicants, according to White. The promotions were conducted without using civil service, a process that was eliminated when the state assumed control of the city in 2016.

The union that represents the department, Police Benevolent Association Local 24, is engaged in a legal battle with the state to reinstate civil service for its members, citing the uncertainty in regards to how officers are promoted, hired and disciplined.

“It’s a little bittersweet as we still have an active lawsuit going,” said Matt Rogers, the union’s president. “So, happy for everyone and congratulations to all, but we’re still going to push forward and try to get some sort of substance back to the promotional process and how they hire.”

Stockton Society to perform Handel's 'Messiah'

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — The second Sunday in December has been circled on the calendar since September, when the 100-plus members of the Stockton Oratorio Society began rehearsals for Handel’s “Messiah.”

Under the direction of Stockton music professor Beverly Vaughn, the musical program brings together a diverse group of performers from across the region ranging in age from 14-year-old Evan Blake to much more seasoned singers.

Lawrence Straub, of Pleasantville, said he has been singing with the community choir at Stockton for longer than he can remember.

“The early activities in my life always included ‘The Messiah’ — in high school, in the military, in the church choir and here at Stockton,” Straub said. “’The Messiah’ is just a part of me. I love the music.”

Vaughn, who has conducted “Messiah” performances since 1984, said she loves George Frideric Handel’s 1741 oratorio, a work that combines singers and an orchestra.

“Handel’s ‘Messiah’ is written in the words of the prophecies. It is the Book of Revelations in beautiful Baroque language,” Vaughn said. “It is just a beautiful piece that builds, each part upon the next.”

One of her favorite parts, early in the performance, is when the alto section begins after a long intro with “‘And the glory of the Lord.’ Oh my God, it is so powerful, as each part begins to build upon those first words.”

The conductor is high-energy every week at Stockton University’s Alton Auditorium as performance day nears, pulling the most from each voice. Vaughn is involved with other choirs at Stockton and, along with music professor Diane Stalling, serves as an adviser to the Stockton Gospel Choir, whose members will sing with Mariah Carey on Dec. 7 at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City.

But while Vaughn attends to the notes, the sound and the nuance of the music, she said it is the spirit of the choir that always surprises.

“The miracle of this piece comes when you least expect it,” Vaughn said. “Look at the members of the choir — they love the music, and you can hear it. The spirit of this choir will make this possibly the best ‘Messiah’ performances we have ever done.”

Choir member Dr. Melissa Hutchinson, of Northfield, assists Vaughn and members of the choir by holding Sunday afternoon practices to give singers assistance and confidence.

“This is my fourth time performing, and I love it. I enjoy being together and singing with people from all walks of life; it just brings me joy,” said the physician. “And then there is Bev, who is just a force of nature.”

Friends Sharon Haywood and Michaelle Cooke, both of Pleasantville, said they heard about the opportunity to sing with the choir from a mutual friend and have not missed a practice since September.

“The first night I walked in here, I was hooked. I love the music,” Cooke said.

Three members of the Blake family of Galloway Township are part of the choir. Lee Ann Blake, an alto, has been performing with the choir for 20 years and will perform a solo at the Dec. 8 concert. Her son Evan Blake, a tenor, is the youngest member of the Stockton Community Choir at 14 and said he joined because he wanted to surprise his dad. Son Alex Blake, 23, a bass, is a freshman at Stockton and is using the choir participation for an arts credit. He said it makes his mom happy so it’s all good.

Anne Bullen, of Somers Point, will sing in her first Messiah concert Dec. 8. She said joining the choir has been welcoming and fun while also hard work. She has been singing in her synagogue choir for years but wanted to experience the Stockton choir.

“I have never been part of such a big production. I have loved it and made new friends. The diversity of the talent and open-heartedness is great,” said Bullen, who practices her part on her daily commute to work.

PHOTOS from practice for Handel's 'Messiah' at Stockton University