"Unusual campaign draws scrutiny from election officials" by Frank Phillips Globe Staff August 23, 2016
The video was clear enough to identify him: There was John Fresolo, the former Democratic state representative who resigned three years ago amid an ethics investigation, roaming the hallway of an elderly housing complex in Worcester where he was apparently looking for voter support to regain his seat.
His unusual plan to accomplish that has drawn the concern of city and state election officials, who have suddenly seen an unexpected surge of enrollment into the little-known United Independent Party in the 16th Worcester House district.
State election officials worry that Fresolo and his campaign workers are unfairly pressuring voters, particularly elderly voters, into switching their Democratic registrations to become independents and then getting them to cast absentee primary election ballots for him as the UIP candidate. With no challenger, Fresolo needs just 150 write-in votes in the September UIP primary to make it onto the November general election ballot.
Fresolo’s strategy has prompted a sharp reaction from Evan Falchuk, founder of the reform-minded UIP.
“His alleged behavior is abusive and unethical — if not illegal,’’ said Falchuk, a former health care executive who was the UIP’s gubernatorial candidate in 2014. “The UIP totally and completely disavows him.”
Without informing UIP officials, Fresolo last May dropped his Democratic Party registration and enrolled as an independent and began to seek the UIP nomination.
Already, he and his supporters have convinced 198 voters to leave the Democratic Party and register as independents, allowing them to participate in any of four primary elections in September: Democratic, Republican, UIP, or Green-Rainbow. Of those, 53 have cast absentee UIP ballots, according to Worcester city elections records.
In an e-mailed statement, Fresolo said friends had asked him to run for his old seat, and that the UIP “was simply chosen as a vehicle to get my name to the general election ballot.” He did not address any of the concerns raised by Falchuk or election officials.
Fresolo’s use of the UIP ballot comes at a particularly sensitive time for Falchuk as he struggles to get his fledgling party off the ground. He got just over 3 percent of the gubernatorial vote two years ago. As the party seeks legislative candidates this year, the UIP is now faced with the intrusion of a disgraced political figure who fled Beacon Hill in 2013 amid embarrassing headlines and a House ethics committee breathing down his neck.
“I don’t like it when anyone is gaming the system,’’ Falchuk said. “This is not the kind of candidate we want running, and this is not what the United Independent Party is about.”
Fresolo is also drawing the attention of state and local election officials. Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office, alerted by city election officers, has sent letters to voters in the district, informing them of the state’s voter registration laws and the restrictions on which party primary voters can cast ballots.
Fresolo had wanted to get his name on the November ballot as an unenrolled or independent candidate but he missed the legal deadline in May to change his registration from Democrat to independent or unenrolled, according to state election officials.
So he turned to the UIP as the vehicle to accomplish his mission, avoiding a Democratic primary contest and instead mounting a general election challenge to Representative Daniel M. Donaghue, who won the seat that Fresolo held for nearly seven terms.
Worcester city election officials say they began to notice Fresolo’s campaign when he and others apparently working with him brought in voter registration forms, filled out in the same handwriting and signed by newly enrolled independent voters.
Officials became concerned when a campaign worker for Fresolo then showed up with three or four filled-out absentee ballots for the UIP primary to present to the election clerk, city officials said. They were rejected and sent back to the voters. Regulations require they be mailed in.
Then an administrator from the Upsala Elder Apartments contacted the city’s election division, reporting that Fresolo was seen on surveillance cameras in the building speaking with and canvassing residents in violation of the rules of the state and federally subsidized housing complex.
The administrator declined to comment to the Globe on Fresolo’s activity. But those reports drew the attention of state election officials.
“Anytime we have some reports of things that might not be in compliance with the law or that voters would be vulnerable to shenanigans, we want to reach out and make sure their rights are protected,” said Michelle Tassinari, the state’s director of elections.
She said Fresolo’s actions raised red flags — including his request for an absentee ballot for himself in the UIP primary election.
Fresolo’s departure from Beacon Hill came about because of pressure from House Speaker Robert DeLeo and then-state Representative Martin J. Walsh who, as chairman of the House Committee on Ethics, was investigating what DeLeo said were “serious allegations” against the Worcester lawmaker. He faced the threat that the committee’s investigation would be publicly released if he did not resign his seat.
The allegations were never made public. Reports at the time centered on an alleged misuse of the per diem reimbursements that lawmakers are entitled to for traveling to the State House from their district. Other reports cited the committee’s review of an inappropriate use of a State House computer.