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State Sen. Ronald Rice. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Rice calls for securing of Atlantic City ballots

Senator wants state authorities to investigate casinos’ involvement in change-of-government referendum

By Nikita Biryukov, March 24 2020 12:49 pm

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark) called for state authorities to order Atlantic County election officials to seal and secure all early mail-in ballots received in response to a now-postponed change-of-government referendum and investigate the involvement of the resort town’s casino’s in the same.

“Those familiar with Atlantic City politics have every reason to be wary.  A shore town with casinos is subject to the same thievery as a beach picnic is to aggressive sea gulls,” Rice said. “Opportunism abounds.  But those best equipped to govern for the people are the people who have come up through the city and would guide it into the future with hands-on, constituent-focused compassion and wisdom.  Not those swooping in for the kill for personal gains and benefits.”

Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy postponed the referendum, which was set to take place on March 31, along with elections in April in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Those votes will now be held on May 12 and conducted entirely through vote-by-mail ballots.

Voting had already started in Atlantic City, and Rice said roughly 1,000 residents have already returned ballots for an election that now won’t be held for seven weeks.

Rice said he wants those votes counted.

“My primary concern today is that the integrity of the people’s vote be preserved — that the votes of Atlantic City residents be properly handled according to law, that precise communication with voters prevents duplicate ballot confusion and that casino owners and employees financing the Atlantic City government takeover cannot use other organizations and means to circumvent the casino laws governing and barring their political participation,” Rice said.

The senator may have reason to be concerned.

Four of Atlantic City’s last seven elected mayors have left office after being charged in some manner of corruption scandal.

Michael Matthews was charged and pled guilty to extortion. In exchange, federal authorities dropped additional charges of bribery, extortion and conspiracy.

Jim Usry faced similar charges of bribery, conspiracy, official misconduct and accepting unlawful gifts, though he pled them down to improper reporting of campaign contributions.

Bob Levy pled guilty to defrauding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and recently-resigned Mayor Frank Gilliam pled guilty to embezzling $87,000 from a youth basketball league he founded and using the money to pay for personal expenses.

Sitting Mayor Marty Small has also had problems with the law.

Though he has never been convicted, Small has been charged or arrested at least 14 times since 1993, with most of those instances occurring after he took a seat on Atlantic City’s Council.

Among the lengthy list of charges against Small are claims he orchestrated alleged absentee ballot fraud schemes in 2006 and 2009.

Small opposes the change-of-government referendum, which would cut the number of council members from nine to five and replace the mayor with a professional city manager appointed by the council.

Casino owner Morris Bailey, casino worker unions, former Mayor Don Guardian and former State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) are backing the referendum, while sitting elected officials and some others oppose the measure.

It looks like Rice is joining the opposition.

“Our government and our judicial system are never afforded the luxury of dropping their vigilance when it comes to protecting our democracy and our sacred right to vote.  That is why I stand with the people of Atlantic City to safeguard their election process and protect it from being commandeered by a band of interlopers and casino owners,” the senator said.

“This cabal blatantly seeks to uproot the city’s current system of mayor-council government to supplant it with another that would result in the selection of a municipal manager to act as the city’s executive,” he said. “My question is, ‘For whose benefit?’

Ballots are being held at the Atlantic County Board of Elections.

The county election office is located at the old county jail building.

Ballots are locked inside carts that are rolled into an old jail cell.  Each cell is locked and requires two keys to get inside; Democrats and Republicans each have one of the keys.

And as a former jail, the walls are said to be four feet thick.  That means cell phones and other electronic devices won’t work inside, election officials told the New Jersey Globe.

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