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Hurst Blasts Sarno As Vote-Buying Maelstrom Consumes Close of Springfield Campaign…

UPDATED 11/3/23 10:38AM: To note that WMP&I has obtained the affidavits and can independently confirm reports about them.

Justin Hurst

Very superstitious, writing’s on the wall? Very superstitious, mayor’s about to fall? (via YouTube/WWLP)

With his mayoral campaign in mortal danger, Springfield at-large Councilor Justin Hurst held a defiant press conference Thursday morning, vigorously denying his campaign engaged in vote-buying. The allegations, which are reportedly now before federal and state investigators, arose after early-voters swamped Election Commission staff Saturday. Some election office staff claim voters had said they received money to vote.

Complementing the report in The Republican was video that appears to show an associate of the Hurst campaign handing out cash to people who just voted. Hurst appears to speak with the associate and drove some of the voters away. In his press conference, Hurst called the entire situation an effort to “distract” voters that his opponent, Mayor Domenic Sarno, cooked up.

“Any accusations that my team paid residents in exchange for their vote is unequivocally false and nothing more than a last-minute smear campaign by an administration that is vulnerable for the first time in 16 years,” Hurst said Thursday.

The broad outlines of the allegations, as presented in The Republican, are that this associate, Gilfrey Gregory, an employee of Pioneer Valley Project, paid homeless people to vote. The newspaper obtained affidavits that Election Commission staff swore out after facing an unexpected surge of early voters. Many needed to register to vote as well, complicating the process.

Some of the voters began demanding they receive payment for voting, the affidavits say, according to The Republican. WMP&I has obtained the affidavits and can confirm they allege several voters who voted early last weekend had demanded payment. All of the affidavits carry an October 31 date.

Election staff contacted the office of Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin over the weekend and on Monday. At some point, the matter came to City Solicitor John Payne. He ultimately referred the matter to the office of Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni.

Both on Wednesday and in his press conference Thursday, Hurst denied the allegations and accused Sarno of acting to interfere with the election. Hurst himself did not refute anything in the affidavits, noting that he had not seen them. However, he appeared to confirm that Gregory was a campaign volunteer who had struggled in life, including stretches of incarceration. Hurst did not directly comment on anything the video purported to show Gregory doing.

Paying people to vote is illegal under Massachusetts and federal law. As a Springfield election, either Gulluni or state officials have jurisdiction. State and local prosecutors have handled election crimes—most prominently the prosecution of Enrico “Jack” Villamaino a decade ago. The feds usually have jurisdiction however pursuant to voting and civil rights laws.

Bill Galvin

No joking matter for Galvin. (still via YouTube/WWLP)

In a statement, Secretary of State Galvin confirmed that his office has spoken to city election officials this weekend.

“Any allegations of money being exchanged for votes is certainly concerning, and deserves further investigation. My office has been in touch with law enforcement, as we would be with any report of a potential irregularity, to ensure that the integrity of the process is maintained,” he said.

The mayor has been relatively mum. However, on Thursday he released a statement to the media saying Election Commission head Gladys Oyola-Lopez reported suspicious activity Saturday. (The statement is somewhat vague as to whom she reported as it is in the first-person plural).

“These allegations are very serious and upsetting to me. Voting is a sacred trust and should be treated as such. The integrity of our elections must be protected. This is a legal matter which has been reported to the proper authorities by Solicitor Judge Payne,” the statement reads, referencing Payne’s prior role as a District Court judge.

Hurst is not buying that.

At his press conference, Hurst excoriated Solicitor Payne for investigating this situation while listing much-gossiped but unconfirmed misdeeds of Sarno’s. He also raised a hot topic in the mayoral race: the misuse of the city’s $129 million allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act.

“What he shouldn’t be doing is investigating a candidate who has run a Clean Campaign against his boss and is poised to be the next mayor of Springfield,” Hurst said of Payne.

While most of Hurst’s comment rehashed his comments to The Republican, there was some clarity on certain elements. In response to a question, Hurst confirmed he had been driving voters to the polls. However, again denied any knowledge of a cash scheme.

“We don’t give money in exchange for votes,” he said. “I don’t know how much clearer I can be.”

Unless one disbelieves their lying eyes, that something untoward happened appears incontrovertible. By contrast, Hurst’s culpability is hardly clear, at least not in a legal sense.

The political impact is harder to discern. The five-term councilor’s allies have rallied to his claims of Sarno’s manipulation. At-large Councilor and Hurst backer Tracye Whitfield—who had an oblique cameo in The Republican’s original story—railed against Sarno and his agents in a Wednesday Facebook Live.

The candidate himself evoked the history he would make, if elected Springfield’s first mayor of color.

“The assumption that if you are black brown or poor and decide to exercise your right to vote that you are being paid in return is exactly why we are in desperate need of change,” Hurst said.

Domenic Sarno

Was Sarno actually nervous enough to orchestrate this? (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

Still, the race itself had settled into a relative calm. This is in some contrast to the final days of the five-way preliminary. Sarno and Hurst placed first and second on September 12. They beat out State Rep Orlando Ramos, Council President Jesse Lederman and therapist David Ciampi and advancing to the  general.

Hizzoner has been behaving as if he were sailing comfortably ahead, if aware that rogue political waves could upend everything. The incumbent had been the only one on television until Thursday. The meager public attention to the race favors the incumbent. Despite exsanguinating his once titanic campaign war chest, Sarno still has a sizable cash advantage over Hurst.

On the other hand, this election may have been, in a sense, predetermined ever since the preliminary. Whether Sarno hangs on or Hurst overtakes may hinge on how deep antipathy toward Sarno and his 16-year reign has run.

The allegations. will almost certainly not become indictments before Election Day. It could prompt reluctant Hurst voters to blank the mayor’s race. The Hurst camp, ostensibly, hopes raising the specter of dirty tricks supercharges turnout to overturn conventional wisdom and depose his mayorness from the municipal throne.

“His last-minute desperation attempt at a Hail Mary will backfire and motivate the masses to come out in support of my candidacy on no on November 7th,” Hurst said.