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The Brooklyn Papers: November 27, 2004: Harpers report: Hynes did 'crime,' O'Hara did time

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Harpers report: Hynes did 'crime,' O'Hara did time

By Jotham Sederstrom

The Brooklyn Papers
November 27, 2004

District Attorney Charles Hynes is threatening to sue Harper's magazine over an article that places the Kings County Democratic Party among the country's most scandalous machines since Tammany Hall.

What most piqued Hynes about the article, penned by Cobble Hill resident Christopher Ketcham for the national magazine's December issue, is an allegation that Hynes unlawfully listed his office address - the Municipal Building in Downtown Brooklyn - as his primary residence on a voter registration card eight years ago.

It would seem a trivial charge of voter fraudulence, perhaps due to an oversight - except that Hynes himself took one John O'Hara, a former perennial candidate for public office in Sunset Park, to task for nearly the same misdeed.

Refusing to cop a plea, O'Hara was indicted in October 1996 on seven felony counts of having registered to vote and having voted from a temporary address four years earlier. Hynes contended that O'Hara registered to vote from his girlfriend's address on 47th Street in Sunset Park while he maintained a permanent residence on 61st Street.

He was the first person to be so tried since suffragist Susan B. Anthony in 1876.

"If Harper's magazine does not retract the story and publish the true facts we'll have no other recourse than to pursue a libel lawsuit," Hynes spokesman Jerry Schmetterer told The Brooklyn Papers.

In 1996, a voter registration card was filed with the Board of Elections on which Hynes' primary residence was listed as 210 Joralemon St., the Municipal Building, where Hynes had his office at the time.

Schmetterer called the filing an Elections Board gaffe, which he said arose after Hynes submitted a change-of-address form while moving from his Flatbush home to a co-op in Bay Ridge that he had not yet closed on. During the interim, his personal mail was forwarded to his office while Hynes stayed at a co-op in Breezy Point, Queens, said Schmetterer.

Hynes' voter registration information, meanwhile, was updated in accordance with the address change, pursuant to the national voter registration act of 1993, also know as the "Motor Voter" law, which provides that voter registration cards can be updated not only after renewing a driver's license, but through the post office whenever a change-of-address form is submitted, Schmetterer said.

"He never signed it, never filled out that card and never voted from that address," said Schmetterer.

The Hynes spokesman said that when he was first approached by Ketcham with a copy of the signed card, he believed it to be a forgery.

Over the course of his reporting, Ketcham said he met with Schmetterer and John O'Mara, executive assistant district attorney to discuss the registration card. In a two-hour meeting, said Ketcham, Schmetterer and 0'Mara offered conflicting statements on the registration card. O'Mara handled O'Hara's prosecution for Hynes.

"Very simply, they were confused in their stories," Ketcham told The Brooklyn Papers. "First they said it was a forgery, then they said it wasn't."

He added: "The on-the-record, conclusory statement from the district attorney's office was that Joe Hynes did not vote from that address - but they never denied that he registered from that address."

I This week, Schmetterer told The Papers that the signature on the card was authentic, but had been copied by the Board of Elections from an older card.

O'Hara, 43, a former Wall Street attorney, was charged with voter fraud for registering his girlfriend's 47th Street apartment as his primary residence in 1992.

He was convicted in 1997 but that decision was tossed out on appeal. Hynes tried him again in 1998. The result - a hung jury. A persistent Hynes retried O'Hara the next year, winning a conviction.

Since then it's been one unsuccessful appeal after another. The state's highest court ruled against O'Hara 5-2 in June 2001 and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case last January. O'Hara was disbarred and sentenced to 1,500 hours of community service, picking up trash along Shore Road in Bay Ridge, of which he has completed about 1,300 hours.

"In his entire career, he's never tried anyone four times," said O'Hara on Tuesday. "No one except me. I'm the most expensive case in his office."

The former Sunset Park Democrat - he now lives in New Jersey - believes he was targeted because of his unending primary challenges against state and city Democrats. Beginning in the early 1990s, O'Hara waged two campaigns for City Council and three for assembly. Most notable among his foes, however, was Assemblyman James Brennan, a Democrat who has represented portions of Park Slope for 20 years.

In his Harpers's article, Ketcham reports that during an election in 1996, Brennan's chief of staff, John Keefe, attacked O'Hara's girlfriend while she was handing out campaign fliers. Although initially charged with assault and sex abuse in the third degree, Keefe, who still works for Brennan, pleaded guilty to only harassment. Ketcham claims in the article that Brennan incited the charges against O'Hara.

"The case originated in the office of O'Hara's nemesis, Brennan," writes Ketcham. "It was pursued as a favor and then as part of an ultimate calculus by another Irishman, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles `Joe' Hynes, who today remains a pure creature of the Brooklyn machine."

Like Hynes, Brennan said this week that he was considering a lawsuit against the magazine based on what he called libelous statements. Unlike Hynes, however, he conceded the difficulty of such a case, which demands that public officials prove malicious intent and that the statements made are, in fact, untrue.

"The article is packed with falsehoods and inaccuracies," said Brennan. "It's an effort by O'Hara to retry his conviction in the press, many, many yearsafter it happened."

Ketcham said that after filing his story at Harper's, fact-checkers from the magazine called the district attorney's office "dozens" of times but were unable to get through to Hynes or his spokespeople. Neither Brennan nor Keefe would comment for Ketcham'sarticle.

The 7,500-word article, a whirling history of political chicanery stretching from William "Boss" Tweed to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, grounds itself in New York, though frequently floats to the nation's other past and present machine cities.

While steering clear of Brooklyn's cadre of other scandalized politicos, Ketcham hones in on Hynes, whose threats of a lawsuit are drawn from one sentence:

"Hynes would regret having ever touched it," Ketcham wrote of the DA's decision to prosecute O'Hara on voter fraud charges. "He himself turned out to be guilty of almost the very same crime, having once registered to vote from his Brooklyn office (most certainly not a legitimate residence, since he never lived at the location)."

Asked what he thought would come of the allegations against Hynes, O'Hara seemed disenchanted.

"He's above the law," said O'Hara.

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