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New York Times, O'Hara Turns The Tables on Hynes
by Jim Dwyer

New York Times
Jan. 15, 2015

Read article

John Kennedy O’Hara spent most of 2003 picking up garbage in city parks and cleaning public toilets as part of his sentence for illegal voting in Brooklyn. Also, he had to pay a fine and restitution amounting to $15,192. His supposed crime was that he registered to vote using the address of a girlfriend on 47th Street in Sunset Park, where he claimed to live part of the time. But he also maintained a residence 14 blocks away.

While this sounds like pretty serious punishment for virtually nothing — the state election laws are so remarkably elastic on matters of residency that a former head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party was actually living in Queens during his reign — we cannot be sure if Mr. O’Hara got more than his unfair share.

There are, after all, very few people to compare him with.

Practically no one.

It appears that the last person to be convicted of illegal voting in New York State before Mr. O’Hara was the abolitionist and suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who cast a ballot in Rochester in 1872, flagrantly disregarding that she was a woman and therefore not allowed to do so. She was not sentenced to pick up garbage in the parks, but was fined $100. She never paid.

Mr. O’Hara, a lawyer, an idealist, a gadfly, did not necessarily have Anthony’s laser focus. But he was a chronic nuisance to the Brooklyn Democratic machine, elements of which were, for many years, as crooked as the hind leg of a dog. He also feuded with former allies in the reform movement, which is the custom among reformers; the first item on the agenda of reformers who come to power is The Split, followed by The Betrayal. Or maybe it is the other way around.

In any event, Mr. O’Hara was prosecuted for illegal voting when he was on the outs with the machine and with the reformers. The Brooklyn district attorney at the time, Charles J. Hynes, assigned a homicide prosecutor to the O’Hara illegal voting case. There was, it should be noted, no shortage of murders in Brooklyn at the time. He was tried three times. Once a conviction was overturned. The second time the jury hung. The third time, it nailed him.

Mr. O’Hara was disbarred as a result of his conviction — the charges were felonies — but he has since been restored to the good graces of his profession by a judicial committee that said he was given a raw and smelly deal indeed.

This week, Mr. O’Hara and his lawyer, Joel B. Rudin, filed a motion in the Brooklyn courts saying that his conviction should be vacated on the grounds of selective prosecution. The motion is jammed with facts collected by Mr. Rudin during the years he helped a man named Jabbar Collins overturn a wrongful conviction for murder and then sue the city, which settled with him for $10 million in August.

Along the way, Mr. Rudin was able to question many senior executives in Mr. Hynes’s office, and uncovered a great deal of casualness about where they actually lived, as opposed to where they claimed to live. Also, he found out that some of the prosecutors let other people sign personal and professional papers for them. And a voter registration card appeared to show that Mr. Hynes himself was, for a time, enrolled using the address of a municipal office building, which hardly qualifies as a residence.

The legal papers total over 620 pages. It seems absurd, but then again, three trials involving a homicide prosecutor, and the notion of equal and opposite absurdity comes to mind. The Court of Appeals has upheld Mr. O’Hara’s conviction, though some of its judges plainly thought it was crazy and said it should have been overturned.

After one of his court triumphs over Mr. O’Hara, Mr. Hynes declared: “The court has sent a clear and unequivocal message that one cannot defraud the voters of Kings County.”

Ouch. A decade later, Mr. Hynes himself was discovered to have paid a political consultant very good money — out of a criminal forfeiture fund — during the middle of a desperate and losing election campaign in 2013. Might he now take a more lenient view of abuse of the electoral process? “Joe is not going to have anything to say,” said his lawyer, Robert Hill Schwartz.

Unlike Susan B. Anthony, Mr. O’Hara is unlikely to find his face emblazoned on a $1 coin.

But he might end up collecting a few of them.

Email: dwyer@nytimes.com

A version of this article appears in print on January 16, 2015, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Man Seeks to Turn Tables on Officials in Voter Fraud.