By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The safest place to hold a job in New York City—bar none—is the Board of Elections. This point was driven home again this summer when a clerk named Dawn Sandow was named the board's second-highest executive at a sweet $155,455 a year.
At most workplaces, promotions are a reward for rules followed and work well done. The elections board, however, operates under Bizarro World principles where yes is no and up is down. Sandow's promotion came even though, two years ago, the board was told by city investigators that prior to her hiring as a deputy in its Bronx office, she had violated one of the most basic election laws by repeatedly voting in the Bronx while living in the suburbs.
She wasn't the only employee getting a free ride for alleged misdeeds. Investigators also let the board know that it had caught another Bronx clerk using his city computer to promote political campaigns while sitting at his desk during work hours. When the Department of Investigation tried to ask Frank Tosi about what he'd been up to, he clammed up and took the Fifth Amendment—an automatic out anywhere else.
Further proof of how far things were out of control came when the investigations department checked the criminal histories of some 50 staff members in the Bronx office. It found that nine had criminal records, including three who were busted while working for the city, normally an instant cause for firing. The charges included possession of stolen property, assault, grand larceny, and possession of a controlled substance. Seven of the nine were still happily on the job.
All of this was wrapped up in a thick memo summarizing an 18-month investigation into the board's strange personnel practices that the Department of Investigation completed in March 2008. The memo, with large redactions, was obtained via a Freedom of Information request inspired by Sandow's interesting promotion.
There is always much complaining about how hard it is to fire city workers when they misbehave, thanks to union rules that handcuff managers. But all other agencies are in the minor leagues compared with the city's elections board. This is the last bastion of pure political patronage. Its 10 commissioners—five Republicans and five Democrats—operate under the firm principle that who you know is always more important than what you know. It is a rogue agency that answers only to itself, all on the taxpayers' dime.
The board's biggest recent move was choosing a vendor to supply new electronic ballot-scanning machines to replace the old hand-lever booths. It spent six years making up its mind. Next month, those of us who like to go to the polls will get a chance to find out how good a job they did when the new machines are rolled out for the first time. By the way, the board's selection of the $50 million winner is also under federal investigation.
The best illustration of the board's operating style was its response to the 2008 investigation of Sandow, Tosi, and its feeble policing of its own workforce. The board gave one big yawn. Officials wrote back to the Department of Investigation saying that they had no intention of disciplining anyone. Sandow's problems, it said, occurred when "she was not in our employ," and were thus "irrelevant." As for Tosi, they insisted it was impossible to fire him because the city's Law Department said it couldn't sack anyone for playing politics on the job.
This last statement was based on more Alice-in-Wonderland logic. The board had asked city Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo to get a judge to green-light the dismissal of employees engaged in politics while on the clock. Cardozo politely responded that no judge in his right mind would issue an up-front judgment without a specific case to consider. Board officials, holding his letter upside down, shrugged. Guess we can't fire anyone, they said.
Of course, no ruling was necessary. The board has a nice little booklet of personnel rules clearly stating that employees can't do politics while working. But those are only words on paper. The elections board showed how furious it was at not being able to fire Tosi by raising his salary by $11,000. When he was nailed two years ago for sending e-mails and working on campaign fundraising instead of his day job, Tosi was earning $48,500; his current salary is $58,972. This is how things work in Bizarro World.
One reason Tosi is untouchable is that he is elections board royalty. Grandfather Vic Tosi was a Republican Party power in the Bronx and top board official. His specialty was putting in the political fix and salting the office with as many relatives as he could manage. The Republicans' current top clerk in the Bronx office is a big fellow with a bald head named Anthony Ribustello. If you saw him, he might look vaguely familiar. He played the human watermelon who was Tony Soprano's bodyguard and driver on The Sopranos. Ribustello is also a Republican Party district leader in the Bronx, his sole qualification for the $60,340 city job he now holds. I wanted to ask Ribustello if he'd been checking up on Tosi's work habits—he couldn't make it to the phone.
Sandow also begged off all questions. The 2008 memo states that when she was asked under oath about where she was living prior to being hired by the board in 2005, she remembered clearly it was in New City in Rockland County. Asked if she'd voted then, she drew a blank. Investigators helped her out by checking the records. These showed that during the time she said she was living in New City, she had managed to vote regularly in the Bronx.
None of that is "relevant to her ability to serve as deputy executive director," said board spokeswoman Valerie Vasquez last week. The board "has full confidence in Dawn," who has "performed professionally and efficiently," she added.
It wasn't always so sure. When investigators raided the Bronx office back in 2007, sparking newspaper stories, board officials cringed, fearing scandal and indictments. Part of what investigators were examining, it was acknowledged, was Sandow's close ties to Jay Savino, the chairman of the Bronx Republican Party.
Savino once held the post as the Bronx GOP's representative on the elections board, but he gave it up to run for the State Senate in 2006. These appointments have to be approved by the City Council, and when Savino tried to reclaim his seat after losing the election, Council officials said nothing doing. They said they couldn't figure out where he lived. Savino also has a home in Rockland County, although he claims his actual residence as the Bronx.
These days, Savino has a law practice in White Plains. He shares office space there with an attorney named Anthony Mangone, who, as it happens, was a lobbyist for the company that won the hard-fought battle to supply those shiny new electronic voting machines we're going to try out next month. The day after the board's vote to choose the new vendor, Mangone was arrested in a separate bribery investigation. Savino has acknowledged that he got his own subpoena in the elections-machine probe.
The last time I saw Savino was this spring at a Republican campaign event. Sandow was there, too. Both were happy to chat, handing out business cards to make keeping in touch easier. Last week, both ducked calls. No offense taken, though. After all, in Bizarro World, this is how you say, "Hello."