Analysis: In Fog of Springfield Mayoral War, Some Questions Amid Vote-Buying Allegations…
The allegations of vote-buying occurring right outside Springfield City Hall have dropped a hand grenade into a historic but quiet municipal election. It has set off a wave of condemnation, conspiracies and snickering across Springfield and within its political class.
On Wednesday, The Republican reported on affidavits and video that purport to show associates of mayoral candidate Justin Hurst paying individuals to vote. Many were ostensible residents of a homeless shelter and queried election staff during early voting where their cash was. Inducing a person to vote for money is illegal under both state and federal law.
On October 31, 2023, after Election Commission staff swore out affidavits, City Solicitor John Payne referred the matter to Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni.
Both state and federal law enforcement have not commented on the issue.
Hurst responded with indignation both in an interview The Republican published Wednesday and in a press conference Thursday. He accused Mayor Domenic Sarno of orchestrating the situation.
Perhaps it is too much to ask in Springfield and when tempers are running hot, but here are some key questions.
What, in Actual Fact, Happened?
It is fine to interrogate how this story became public. Yet, the suspicion that something improper happened is not absurd. The video and the affidavits complement each other and strongly suggest something alarming happened, but what is not certain. If innocent, Hurst’s indignation is appropriate. But, he does himself no favors by trashing everything now public as an attempt to steal the election.
Even without the video, employees of the Election office are largely credible. While the mayor exercises some control over the Springfield Election Commission, Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s eyes also look over their shoulders.
Amid Sarno’s play to again commandeer the City Clerk selection in 2021, he merged Election Commission head Gladys Oyola-Lopez’s job with the Clerk’s. But that also means the mayor cannot fire Oyola-Lopez in her capacity as Clerk. That is in the hands of the Council.
In short, the testimony of Oyola-Lopez and her staff should be taken seriously.
The video, too, clearly shows enough to strongly suggest Gilfrey Gregory was handing cash out. Was it in exchange for people voting? That is at least plausible. Election staff plainly heard people discussing that. Still, absent a clear, specific transaction, there may be no crime. Some homeless voters told the paper they were paid, but investigators will need to uncover a pattern of promises of votes for cash to establish guilt. It should not be hard as who voted on October 28 is public information.
That the Hurst campaign was shuttling voters in, especially on the last day to register to vote, is not an issue. In his press conference, Hurst suggested that Sarno was kicking up dust to imply that residents of color would only vote if they were paid.
It is not unthinkable that Sarno, despite once being an anonymous cog in the city political machine, wants voters to question the recruiting random residents to vote. Contra Hurst’s thinking, though, voters are often transactional—if not for raw cash—on voting and for whom. Tammany Hall and less sinister political groups did exactly this to harvest votes of immigrants and their children a century ago.
Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia survived his preliminary, in part, because his allies recruited voters right off the streets of the Flats and South Holyoke. If Hurst or his allies chose to persuade the homeless to vote and then bring them en masse to City Hall, that’s perfectly fine.
But any quid pro quo needs serious scrutiny. You cannot pay people to vote, let alone vote for you. It is a crime. A business giving voters a prize for voting is murkier. Either way, investigators must determine what the exact, alleged promises were. The evidence there is incomplete.
Why Do We Know Any of This?
It may seem like a strange question, but it’s a serious one. Why did this information become public? Obviously, The Republican obtained the affidavits and video and wrote a story. Why did anybody in the city give the records, though, and was that itself legally problematic?
One legal issue is the disclosure of investigatory material itself and another is the compromising of any state investigation. While it may be wrong to believe the entirety of this episode to be a Sarno admin concoction, the dissemination likely is.
There are two ways to look at the referral of the situation to Gulluni. Either city officials legitimately wanted an investigation—as they should—or they wanted to say they referred the matter for investigation to hang a cloud over Hurst.
However, the public evidence undermines the case that city officials to whom Election staff escalated the situation were truly interested in an investigation. The Republican states it filed public records requests, but plainly the existence of many of these records were intentionally leaked. At least some of these would be withheld from public records law as part of an ongoing investigations and prosecutions. The city routinely uses this exemption. So either there is no investigation or it is making up some exception to the exception to disclose documents related to a criminal investigation.
Since this story broke, the city has essentially agreed to disclose everything it has in its file. When the city receives a public records request for the video, it now refers the requesters to an October 31 request where all of the video, affidavits and Payne’s correspondence are available (with a November 2 upload date). This is itself somewhat ironic as it is within the spirit of recent Public Records law reform, but still doesn’t explain why the city is claiming no exemptions.
(Gulluni’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether the public availability of evidence affects his investigation).
Another issue is the timeline. The videos would probably not be exempt due to an investigation. Again, The Republican said it received the videos pursuant to a public records request, along with the October 28 early voter list and the affidavits. But when WMP&I requested public records requests for the video predating the story, the city said it had none. Yet, plainly a public records request opened on October 31 (the one the city is now using to share documents and video).
This request was opened at 9:57am and closed at 3:03pm. October 31 was the same day the Election staff swore out affidavits, which Deputy City Solicitor Kathy Breck notarized. The Republican could not have accessed the affidavits and Payne’s letter before they existed. Given the timing of publishing, this could be The Republican’s request. In any event it represents an extraordinarily fast turnaround to respond to a public records request.
This all raises a final related question. Is the city denying it has any records pertaining to a public record request for the video?
How Deep Is the Conspiracy—to Buy Votes?
Note the em dash. There are plenty of conspiracies to rifle through.
The videos appear to show Hurst picking up voters whom Gregory appears to have handed cash to. The affidavits also mention that some voters said Hurst’s name. One homeless voter (who was already registered) told The Republican he was likely to vote for Hurst anyway, but he had received cash and a ride from Hurst supporters.
Plenty of people have already decided that Hurst was aware of what happening and/or directly involved. However, the foundation of such certainty is not the evidence but contempt. The evidence that we have now is circumstantial.
The video clearly showed Hurst arriving and departing with voters, but Hurst has not denied that he was ferrying voters. Why should he? That is perfectly legal. That he spoke with Gregory is not proof, either. None of the reporting thus far suggests any of the voters identified Hurst as the person who offered them money. There is no suggestion in the affidavits or video that Hurst had direct involvement or knowledge of money changing hands.
It is quite possible that this scheme was undertaken without Hurst’s knowledge. The only thing that might offer some doubt about that is Hurst defended Gregory at his press conference. But this too could be many things from naivete to disbelief a volunteer would jeopardize the campaign in this way.
Of course, a fuller investigation may unveil the conspiracy and expose Hurst. Whether that is possible or not at this point is another matter.
Most attention now is on how these accusations will affect the election outcome. However, a more pertinent question is whether publicizing the evidence will hurt prosecutors’ ability to make a case. Discerning who knew what could be more difficult than whether money changed hands. Conspirators, if any, now know exactly what investigators do and coordinate stories. It would be very unfortunate indeed if the city’s rush to publicize this made a full revelation of the truth impossible.
The only other elected official caught up in the allegations is at-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield, a Hurst supporter. It may grind her critics’ gears, but reviewing the affidavits, reporting and video, there is no evidence she knew anything. The only real Whitfield connection is her complaint about Election staff rudeness on October 28. However, the affidavits’ detail how and why staff challenged voters. This and Whitfield’s subsequent withdrawal of her complaint provide important context.
This could change, but it hasn’t yet. Did she know the alleged actors? Yes, but everybody in Springfield is six degrees of Kevin Bacon away from unscrupulous types.
What Did Sarno Know and When Did He Know It?
The mayor did a strange thing on Thursday. He released a statement saying that Oyola-Lopez came to “our office,” apparently utilizing the royal we. He then referred her to Payne. Except that does not fit into the sworn testimonies out there.
Oyolo-Lopez’s affidavit states she directed Chelsea Parmentier, an Election specialist, to reach out to the Election Division within Galvin’s office. Per Oyola-Lopez, Parmentier contacted Will Rosenberry, a frequent resource for Springfield Election Commission staff. He advised forwarding the situation to the City Solicitor. (Parmentier’s affidavit does not go into this).
Presumably, Payne appears to have been first informed on Saturday when Parmentier sent him an email on Oyola-Lopez’s orders. The city’s IT department became involved on Monday when Oyola-Lopez sought the camera footage.
It was also on Monday that Oyolo-Lopez spoke with a longtime contact, Michelle Tassinari, an election attorney with Galvin’s office. The attorney advised Oyola-Lopez to have the city inform the District Attorney and have its state police unit investigate. Oyola-Lopez also affirmed in her affidavit that Tassinari planned to call the feds. Galvin’s statement said his office alerted law enforcement, but did not specify an agency or layer of government.
This means that Payne—and possibly the mayor—knew as early as Saturday and no later than Monday about what was going on. With IT staff digging into cameras Monday, Sarno almost certainly learned about the situation no later than that. Notably, Oyolo-Lopez did not attest to personal contact with Sarno or Payne before contacting Tassinari.
Payne’s letter closes with saying the city will provide the affidavits “as they become available.” The divergence between the upload date and the closure date on the October 31 public records request complicates things. However, taken at face value, if that request was how the city first disseminated affidavits to the press, then the last affidavit was completed no later than 3pm Tuesday. (Again all are dated October 31) One can bet that Sarno knew their contents, or the gist thereof, no later than then. The only other question is, did Gulluni’s office get the affidavits before or after a reporter did?
Regardless, within a day of the last possible moment Sarno could have learned anything, the affidavits and video were already requested and within the hands of a reporter. Not only were official records of an investigation disclosed, but public records requests suddenly turned around at warp speed, mere hours! These are not things that happen normally—without a directive from on high.
Sarno can act as innocent as a newborn kitten, but the timing potentially puts a spotlight on him, too.