Bucks County government's three highest-ranking Republicans denied in federal court yesterday that they had harassed, intimidated, or politically leaned on the county elections director.
Chief Operating Officer David Sanko and County Commissioners James Cawley and Charles Martin were called to testify in a polling-place dispute that has taken a dramatic detour into county-level political intrigue.
On Monday, longtime Board of Elections Director Deena K. Dean testified that she feared Sanko, who she claimed had "harassed me for two years." She also accused Cawley and Martin of impeding her from running her office fairly and impartially.
All three men said they believed Dean was retaliating because they had refused to remove a disciplinary letter from her personnel file.
"Sadly, I have come to that conclusion," Cawley testified.
Sanko said he had focused much attention on Dean's office recently but denied harassing her. "Sometimes people view aggressive questions as not being as helpful as intended," said Sanko, who was a chief of staff for Gov. Mark Schweiker and emergency management director for Gov. Rendell.
Somewhat obscured by the back-and-forth was the court case that gave rise to the clamor. A group of minority voters is seeking to reverse the county's 2007 relocation of its polling place, claiming that a GOP plan to suppress voter turnout was behind the push to move the poll to a site less accessible to them.
After two days of testimony in U.S. District Court, Judge Petrese B. Tucker issued no ruling on whether to grant an injunction restoring the polling place to the Creekside Apartments on Knights Road. Tucker gave lawyers a week to submit briefs, after which she will rule.
Residents contend that Bensalem Republicans, assisted by high-level county officials, deliberately moved the poll to keep Democrats from voting. The apartments are home to 75 percent of the district's 3,300 voters, many of whom are too old, infirm or poor to drive or walk to the new site about a mile away.
County Republicans say the move was in response to concerns about crime, insufficient parking, and lack of handicap access at Creekside, where the poll had been for three decades.
Dean has testified that Bensalem's Republican leader, Mike Brill, approached her as early as 2004, seeking the switch for political reasons. She told him that was not a legitimate request.
Three years later, Brill had two party workers sign letters saying they wanted the poll moved because of Creekside's crime rate. The effort succeeded.
Dean said she never openly supported or opposed the move. But she testified Monday that a lawyer for the county berated and intimidated her while preparing for this week's hearing, and that she feared political retaliation from her superiors because of her testimony.
Sanko, Cawley and Martin said they had no role in the decision to move the poll. They theorized that Dean was angry after asking them repeatedly to remove the disciplinary letter from her file.
Dean's direct supervisor, Lynn Bush, admonished her after Dean sent an e-mail to Sanko, Bush, the three county commissioners, and the County Solicitor's Office after the November 2007 election. The e-mail forwarded accusations, made by an anonymous source, that the election outcome might have been affected by improper tabulation of votes.
Sanko ordered the county solicitor to investigate the claims, which he said proved to be groundless. But he said Dean should have raised the issue solely with Bush rather than spreading the allegations so widely.
Sanko said Dean also had erred by initially refusing to reveal the informant's identity, and for earlier refusing to sign a required federal election form. Bush disciplined Dean for those infractions, Sanko said.
"It was not a political issue," he testified. "There is not a Republican or a Democratic way to conduct a fair and honest election."
Martin said that he always enjoyed a "professional" relationship with Dean and that she sometimes sought his advice on difficult matters. In recent months, he said, Dean had asked him several times to purge her file of the disciplinary letter. He refused, saying he had never done such a thing for anyone.
Martin was asked in court whether Dean was now retaliating.
"I believe that's possible, yes," he said.
None of the county officials would comment after the hearing.