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Updated: Monday, 27 Aug 2012, 10:52 AM EDT
Published : Wednesday, 22 Aug 2012, 6:21 AM EDT
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Democratic congressional candidate Anthony Gemma leveled a string of shocking charges at incumbent David Cicilline at a packed press conference on Wednesday but largely refused to corroborate them under hostile questioning from reporters.
Gemma cast his outdoor noontime event as a brave effort to bring to light rampant election fraud that he says has been orchestrated by Cicilline's aides and was uncovered by a private investigative firm he hired. "It is evidence of conduct that compromises the very core of the electoral process," he said.
Those allegations included coaxing people to vote, getting individuals to cast multiple ballots at multiple polling places, teaching underage individuals how to vote fraudulently, abusing the absentee ballot system, using dead voters' names to cast ballots, tampering with electronic voting machines and registering to vote at businesses and vacant lots. Gemma claimed the fraud took place in Providence between 2002 and 2010.
Cicilline's campaign responded with outrage almost immediately, calling it "another bizarre and outrageous political stunt" by Gemma, who is challenging Cicilline in the Sept. 11 primary after losing to him in 2010.
"Fortunately I think Rhode Islanders know the difference between fact and fiction - that was fiction," Cicilline told WPRI.com on Wednesday afternoon at his East Providence campaign office, adding that while voter fraud should be investigated and prosecuted, Gemma "did not produce a single shred of evidence."
Cicilline said neither he nor anyone working for his offices has been contacted by law enforcement. He also said he'd never seen or heard any evidence of voter fraud during his time in Rhode Island politics, and called the state's new voter ID law "one of the best in the country" because it allows for provisional ballots.
Republican candidate Brendan Doherty issued a statement saying he was "greatly troubled" by Gemma's allegations, which "cast a cloud of suspicion over the electoral process." He called for a further investigation of the claims and said: "Rhode Islanders deserve an immediate, clear and truthful response from their elected representative."
Reporters pressed Gemma for firmer evidence to back up his serious allegations about the veteran Democrat, though some of their questions were drowned out by his supporters' cheers. He distributed documents that he said included affidavits backing up the allegations. But he repeatedly refused to say which individuals had given the statements.
Cicilline and the media weren't the only ones who expressed skepticism about Gemma's claims. Dan Harrop, the Republican who ran for mayor against Cicilline in 2006 and therefore would have been one of the victims of the alleged voter fraud, told WPRI.com the charges were "absolutely ridiculous" and "just nuts."
"I disagree with the congressman on almost everything and am working hard to have Brendan Doherty replace him, and I don't believe for a second that Mr. Cicilline and his team were crazy enough to buy votes against me," Harrop said, noting he lost by more than 66 percentage points.
State police urged silence
Gemma called on the Federal Election Commission to come to Rhode Island and supervise the Sept. 11 primary to ensure its credibility, though experts quickly pointed out that is likely outside the FEC's jurisdiction. He also asked the R.I. Board of Elections to freeze all mail ballots so they can be scrutinized.
According to the secretary of state's office, nearly 2,000 mail ballot applications have been received in the 1st Congressional District for the Sept. 11 primary. The deadline was Monday and a spokesman said that number will likely increase somewhat.
Gemma was joined at the press conference by former R.I. Attorney General James O'Neil, who said the candidate retained him within the last week to act as a liaison between Gemma and both the R.I. State Police and the FBI as they look into his claims. O'Neil said the state police are "aggressively" investigating the allegations.
R.I. State Police Col. Steven O'Donnell declined to comment directly on Gemma's allegations. "I don't think the state police should be confirming or denying any of these reports because it is unfair and inappropriate," he told WPRI.com.
Gemma acknowledged under questioning that he met Tuesday with O'Donnell, who asked him not to go public with his allegations. But Gemma said he decided to do so because he wanted voters to know what he'd learned, even as the press conference devolved into a spectacle.
Voters 'hiding in their attics'
"Of course I'm seeking your support on Election Day, but in the final analysis this is not about voting for Anthony Gemma - this is about voting," Gemma said. He said the problems became clear to him when he began campaigning in South Providence and was told about frightened minority voters "hiding in their attics with weapons."
O'Neil also emphasized his opinion that Gemma had not directly implicated Cicilline in the accusations but rather his associates, though Gemma said at the end of his presentation he believed it was "smoking-gun evidence that David Cicilline has committed criminal acts related to fraud."
TRP Associates, the investigative firm Gemma hired, wasn't present at the press conference. Its principals are retired state police detectives James Mullen and Thomas Underhill. Gemma said they have audio and video evidence as well as documents, but none of that was released on Wednesday.
Cicilline's campaign fired back that Gemma had "produced nothing more than bizarre statements about witnesses holed up in attics with guns and a state representative wearing disguises to vote at multiple locations." Those were among the litany of details Gemma put forward during his speech.
Party chairs weigh in
Gemma eventually cut off reporters' questions and sped off in a black SUV from his Broad Street headquarters, where his campaign had blocked off a side street and set up lawn chairs for the press. Afterwards, three individuals - Laura Perez, Erminia Garcia and City Councilman Wilbur Jennings - took to the microphone and said they could corroborate his allegations.
The Providence Journal reported last year that a previous state police investigation into the claims by Perez, a repeat candidate against state Rep. Grace Diaz, was closed due to a lack of specific information.
Gemma also hinted at more allegations to come that he said "would shock and even sicken you." But he refused to offer specifics.
Ed Pacheco, chair of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, said the charges should be examined by the authorities but said there was "no credible evidence" of Cicilline's involvement. "Mr. Gemma’s approach to this matter has been highly irresponsible," he said. "This race is too important. I am calling on Mr. Gemma to return to the issues and put the theatrics aside."
Mark Zaccaria, chair of the Rhode Island Republican Party, offered a mutual reaction, saying the charges should be investigated and could help explain why Democrats have dominated state politics since the 1930s. But he urged voters to "resist the temptation to make wild assumptions about how far the supposed network extends, and even whether it exists at all."
Charges of voter fraud have surfaced repeatedly in Rhode Island in recent years and are often cited as a reason the state enacted a new voter ID law last year. In February, state Rep. Anastasia Williams told a reporter she'd seen examples of voter fraud, singling out a large Hispanic man named "El Macho."
Primary night is just three weeks away and Eyewitness News is teaming up with The Providence Journal to bring you a live campaign 2012 Congressional Primary Debate.
Congressman David Cicilline and Challenger Anthony Gemma will face off on the issues as they vie for the Democratic nomination.
The debate is Tuesday, August 28, and will be broadcast live on WPRI 12 and WPRI.com starting at 8 p.m.
Click here to submit your questions for the candidates or to sign up for a seat, to watch the debate in person at Rhode Island College.
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