It was a setup.
That’s how longtime Grand Island activist Russ Thompson described the series of events that led to his being charged with felony of false voter registration and using that false registration to cast ballots on Grand Island. Thompson turned down an offered plea bargain, and the charge carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison.
Thompson is perhaps best known for his advocacy to end the tolls at the Grand Island Bridge, a toll he’s long maintained has hurt businesses on the island. He lived on the island for more than 20 years and owns a business – Mini Max Concrete – there.
Prior to last summer, he did so without any problems. He rented a house and operated his business from a structure out back. But, as the race for Grand Island town supervisor heated up, and he threw his support behind dark horse candidate Nate McMurray, things went south fast, he told the Niagara Falls Reporter.
A building inspector showed up at his house, and said the business he was running was in violation of the town’s zoning law, Thompson said.
“I told him he needed to go back and look at the zoning ordinances, because I’d researched it myself and it was not in violation,” he said.
After the inspector left, Thompson called a friend on the town Board of Supervisors and explained what happened. A few days later, he got a call back saying that the Board, in executive session, decided he was correct, and that his business was not in violation of any code.
“I thought everything was OK,” Thompson said. “And then a week or two later I get an eviction notice from my landlord. I went to him and said, ‘What’s this? I’ve been here all these years, never been late with the rent, why am I being evicted?’”
The landlord said he had received a letter from the town stating that Thompson’s business was in violation of the zoning ordinance and that, if he wasn’t evicted, the property owners would be dragged into court.
A friend in Niagara Falls just happened to have a vacant half a duplex he said Thompson and his wife could live in while everything was getting sorted out, and Thompson moved his business to another Grand Island location down the street from his former home.
“The living arrangement was meant to be strictly temporary,” he said. “I always considered myself a Grand Island resident.”
When he went to vote in the primary election on Grand Island last September, he found that his name had been stricken from the voting rolls. He filled out an affidavit and was allowed to vote, the action that is now central to the case against him.
When a mailing came to their old address from the Erie County Board of Elections, Thompson said, his wife Julianne sent it back with a note saying they no longer lived at the address and to stop sending mail there. That note is another key piece of evidence in the case brought against him by acting Erie County District Attorney Michael Flaherty.
Flaherty is currently running for election and high profile cases such as Thompson’s ensure maximum news coverage for his office.
Thompson said he has been told by numerous individuals that his affidavit ballot was hand delivered first to the Erie County Board of Elections by Mary S. Cooke, the former longtime town supervisor who lost to McMurray by fewer than 15 votes in the November election.
When the Board of Elections refused to do anything about it, Cooke allegedly took the affidavit to the district attorney’s office, Thompson said.
“If that’s the case, the whole thing is illegal,” Thompson said. “She is not an employee of the Board of Elections and it’s against the law for her to be in possession of any ballot or affidavit.”
A hearing has been scheduled for August 24 based on defense motions to dismiss the case against Thompson.
He is being represented by prominent Buffalo defense attorney Thomas Eoannou.
Eoannou said he considers the current felony charges against his client to be excessive.
“This statute has been used maybe four or five times since Susan B. Anthony, when it was used against her,” Eoannou said. “A felony disposition of this case is inappropriate.”