Casting a vote made me a felon: As I later learned, the charges against me were fueled by politics
New York Daily News
Sept. 2, 2010
by John O'Hara
The other day, I heard the best news to come out of Albany in years while working at my new law office in Manhattan. Gov. Paterson (above) announced he would be granting hundreds of pardons before leaving office.
A pardon is a complete exoneration for someone convicted of a crime. It's as though you were never arrested.
I need a pardon.
Fourteen years ago, I was arrested because I registered to vote. I didn't vote twice in the same day, nor did I vote from a sham address. The crime, "false registration and illegal voting," stemmed from the fact that for one year I lived at my ex-girlfriend's house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, but didn't give up my rent-stabilized apartment 14 blocks away. A jury would have to decide if her house was my "principal and permanent" residence. Fingerprinted and booked by the Brooklyn district attorney, I was facing 28 years in prison.
Sitting in a Brooklyn courtroom while a prosecutor went through every check, credit card slip and tax return for the past 20 years of my life was surreal. The first trial ended in a conviction, later reversed on appeal. The jury deadlocked in the second trial. The third trial ended with another guilty verdict. The appeals took on a life of their own, with People vs. O'Hara becoming one of the most expensive criminal cases in New York.
In December 2004, Harper's Magazine published an article investigating the case, "Meet the New Boss: Man vs. Machine Politics in Brooklyn." As the piece explained, I had run for Assembly and City Council seats in five separate elections, and my persistence made some fellow Democrats angry. I figured that dissent was the greatest form of patriotism, but never imagined that I'd pay with my freedom for it.
Harper's reported that my former opponent, Assemblyman James Brennan, urged the Brooklyn DA, Charles Hynes, to find something on me. When the guilty verdict came in, Hynes reportedly called Brennan to announce that they had won.
Ironically, Harper's discovered that Hynes no longer lived in Brooklyn himself: He registered to vote from his office so that he could meet the residency requirement. Is that a crime? It certainly is, but, of course, there was no one to prosecute the prosecutor.
I rejected all plea deals because I felt that a hard line had to be taken against locking people up for minor voting infractions. After all, liberty is not something that gets taken away all at once; it gets chipped away at slowly.
Ultimately, I avoided prison. The sentence was five years of probation, a fine of $20,000 and disbarment as an attorney. I was also ordered to perform 1,500 hours of community service, which consisted of clearing litter from city parks. The "chain gang," as my friends called it, became a ritual over the years that, oddly enough, I took pride in.
Since turning 18, I never missed voting - and was in turn punished for this act fundamental to our democracy. The stigma of being a disbarred attorney and convicted felon altered my life, though in Brooklyn the best of times and the worst are always close at hand.
Last October, I was reinstated to practice law. The usually staid Committee on Character and Fitness of the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court recognized that the prosecution was political, stating "the machine went gunning for him" and "pounced on his change of residency, calling it election fraud." The committee "had grave doubts" that I did anything that justified a criminal prosecution.
I waited 12 years for that decision, but it's still not over.
People vs. O'Hara now subjects voters to felony prosecution unless they pledge allegiance to one residence indefinitely. A pardon from Paterson would eliminate that precedent. And that would be good for all of us.
O'Hara, an attorney, lives in Brooklyn.