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New York Post: 11/07/00: The man without lever-age

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Posted by GET NY on 12:00:33 12/25/04

Banned from the booth
The man without lever-age
Ex-lawyer lost voting right over grudge, he says

PRESSURED? O'Hara insists Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes was urged to single him out for protesting the results of a previous primary.

PLACE IN HISTORY: John Kennedy O'Hara is the first person to be convicted for illegal voting in New York state since Susan B. Anthony was found guilty of the same thing in 1876.

New York Post

By Todd Venezia

ELECTION DAY is a nightmare for John Kennedy O'Hara.

The former Brooklyn lawyer has been banned from the polls for illegal voting - the first person to be convicted of the "crime" in New York state since 1876. He vividly remembers his first night in jail.

Handcuffed and wearing a business suit, he sat on a metal bench in a Brooklyn police lockup and wondered how to explain his arrest to the hardened criminals who gathered around.

"I was sitting there in a suit, looking like a secret-service agent, , and the other people in the cell were asking me what I was in for," he recalls.

"I had to tell them, it was for illegal voting. They couldn't believe it."

The prisoners had good reason to be surprised. O'Hara's the first person to be charged and convicted for the "crime" in New York state since the famed suffragette Susan B. Anthony was found guilty of the same thing in 1876.

The charges against O'Hara - which the disbarred attorney vehemently denies - allege he voted from his girlfriend's home in Sunset Park, Brooklyn's 38th Election District in 1992 and 1993, when his primary residence was an apartment he kept in a neighboring district.

And recently, O'Hara has won a victory. New York's Court of Appeal - the state's highest court - granted him leave last month to make a full formal appeal on the grounds his constitutional voting rights have been violated.

It's the latest twist in a four-year saga O'Hara insists began as a political vendetta by the borough's Democratic leaders.

"I'm very happy they granted leave [to appeal], and I know the conviction will be overturned," he said. "I'm not happy that I've been a convicted felon for the past four years because I voted."

SINCE being convicted in 1997 for voting illegally in 1992 and 1993, O'Hara's life has been torn apart.

He's been disbarred, put on probation, fined $20,000 and forced to do community service, picking up litter in the parks where he once handed out fliers during his political campaigns.

"It was pretty ironic," he said. "It left a psychological scar."

During the years of legal wrangling that followed his arrest, which included three separate trials, O'Hara insisted that Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes was under pressure to single him out for the nearly unprecedented illegal-voting charges.

O'Hara says Brooklyn's Democratic leaders have had it in for him since 1996, when he protested the results of the borough's Democratic primary after losing the 51st district's assembly nomination to the party's candidate. He says a political vendetta is the only explanation for the unusual prosecution.

"They picked me out of a million voters and put me on trial for something no one had ever been tried for," he said. "I mean, why did they do this? Because they were out to get me."

Hynes' office did not return several calls, but borough Democrats strongly denied O'Hara's claim. They say O'Hara was never a serious candidate, and was such a minor figure in 1996, they had no reason to go after him.

"We can barely conjure up an image of Mr. O'Hara, let alone answer his contention that we are waging a war against someone we do not know," said Jeffrey Feldman, executive director of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

O'Hara's appeal will likely be heard by the state's high court next spring.

This climax to the O'Hara story comes after his latest conviction for the same offense in the summer of 1999. That conviction came after his second trial in the spring of 1999 ended in a hung jury and his initial conviction in 1997 was overturned by a lower appeals court.

At issue for the appellate court will be the constitutionality of the election law used to convict O'Hara.

IN A strange twist, O'Hara admits he is guilty of breaking the law, despite his numerous appeals and his claims of persecution. But he says the law is illegal because - as applied to him - it could mean anyone with two homes could be found guilty of voter fraud.

"Anybody with two residences now is in jeopardy of becoming a convicted felon," he said. "Basically this outlaws the right to vote."

Some legal experts agree. Attorney Peter Sweeney has filed a brief on behalf of the League of Women Voters supporting O'Hara.

"[The League] didn't want to see the voting process criminalized," Sweeney said. "They didn't want people to avoid going to the polls for fear they will face felony charges."

During O'Hara's trials, prosecutors alleged he used his girlfriend's house on 47th Street in the 38th voting district to vote in 1992 and 1993 - even though he did not live there.

They alleged the 47th Street address was a front to' allow him to vote and run for office. Prosecutors said he really lived at an address in the 39th district on 61st Street.

In court, O'Hara produced evidence to show he lived at his- girlfriend's home - including checking accounts, credit cards and neighbors who saw him there.

But legal experts said O'Hara had to be found guilty because the law says that, for a place to be considered someone's residence, it had to be the "place where a person maintained a fixed, permanent and principal home and to which he ... always intends to return."

Experts say this means anyone who lives in two homes for significant periods of time cannot chose either as a residence for voting - without possibly becoming a felon.

"The definition given by the judge basically leads to one verdict," Sweeney said.

"Nowhere in New York state, or anywhere in the country for that matter, has the standard been this strict."

O'Hara says the law is so strict that Hynes could run afoul of the law because he keeps residences in Brooklyn and in Breezy, Point, Queens, Sweeney said the law could even affect First Lady Hillary Clinton, because of her pads in New York and at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The appellate court appears to have selected O'Hara's case to clarify the voting laws, legal ex; erts say. The case was one of 44 cases chosen out of nearly 2,800 cases to be granted a high-court appeal.

As for O'Hara, he's amused at the link to Susan B. Anthony, who voted illegally in an attempt to overturn laws that barred women from the ballot box.

"Maybe they'll put me on the three-dollar bill someday," he said.

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