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Councilors not pleased with outcome of forgery case

Date: 9/19/2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

CHICOPEE — The punishment of Francis Lapointe, former state representative and aide to Mayor Michael Bissonnette, did not satisfy two of the city councilors responsible for calling for an investigation into the forgery of signatures on a referendum petition last year.

According to the Attorney General's Office (AG), on Sept. 12, Lapointe "admitted to sufficient facts today in Chicopee District Court on the charge of Willful Alteration, Mutilation, or Destruction of Nomination Papers. The Commonwealth had requested that the court find the defendant guilty. District Court Judge Bethzaida Sanabria-Vega continued the case without a finding and ordered Lapointe to one year probation, with the condition that he be prohibited from working on any political campaign, whether for a candidate or for a ballot initiative. Violation of the terms of probation will automatically result in a guilty finding. Judge Sanabria-Vega also ordered Lapointe to pay a $1,000 fine."

The statements of City Councilors Dino Brunetti and John Vieau may restart some of the hostility between the City Council and the mayor that has been abated in recent months.

Brunetti said in a written statement, "Today is a black eye for the city of Chicopee and Chicopee residents deserve better. While some City Council members and the City Clerk exposed fraud and forgery in an effort to keep Chicopee elections honest, Mayor Bissonnette chose to hide behind his petition campaign chairman rather than stand and face the people of Chicopee."

Vieau added, "Let's be clear. The petition to extend the mayor's term to four years was led by Mike Bissonnette and his campaign committee. He authorized the city solicitor, who is paid with taxpayer dollars, to create the petition. He directed his former chief of staff to oversee the petition process. Mike Bissonnette's personal ambition for a four-year term led us to this dark day."

Bissonnette told Reminder Publications that he would not attempt again to extend the term of the mayor. He said that State Rep. Joseph Wagner had blocked the first attempt to change the term and the forgery issue stopped the referendum approach.

He said he was sorry Brunetti and Vieau weren't "happy" about the results of the investigation by the AG. He added the investigation took seven months and about 50 people were interviewed.

Vieau charged that Bissonnette had a role in the forgery.

"Frannie Lapointe may have walked the plank, but Mike Bissonnette us responsible for what has happened in Chicopee. The people deserve better from their elected mayor. Mike Bissonnette needs to be accountable," he said.

The AG's investigation did not implicate Bissonnette.

The office described the findings as "a result of an investigation into a 2011 petition approved by Mayor Bissonnette, which if certified, would have placed a question on the November 2011 Chicopee election ballot asking voters whether the Chicopee mayoral term should be extended from two to four years. The proponents of the question needed to submit 1,701 approved signatures to the Registrar of Voters by Aug. 26, 2011 in order to get the question on the ballot. According to investigators, Mayor Bissonnette informally appointed Lapointe to lead that effort. Lapointe was responsible for distributing and collecting the petitions and submitting them to the Registrar of Voters for certification, according to the statement from the AGs Office."

The report continued, "By the Aug. 26 [2010] deadline, 150 petitions sheets containing 2,012 signatures were submitted to the Registrar of Voters. The Board of Registrars rejected 270 signatures for various typical reasons, such as duplicates, illegible, and unregistered voters, and accepted 1,751 signatures, certified the petition, and submitted it to the City Clerk for final approval. Upon reviewing the petition and signatures, the City Clerk's Office noticed numerous signatures to be similar and suspected they had been forged. The City Clerk notified the City Council and a challenge to the signatures was filed with the Registrar of Voters. The Registrar held a public hearing on Sept. 21, 2011, during which numerous witnesses testified that they never signed the petition and suggested that someone else must have signed their name without permission. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Registrar rejected 51 signatures, which reduced the number of signatures below the number needed to certify the petition, thus causing the petition to fail."

The report concluded, "At that point, the matter was referred to the AG's Office for investigation. That investigation revealed that 39 of the 145 petitions submitted by Lapointe contained signatures that were falsely made. According to investigators, many of those signatures appeared to have been written by the same person, and were consistent with the writing style found in a handwriting exemplar completed by Lapointe."

Lapointe had been a close aide and political ally to the mayor and Bissonnette said he was "very disappointed."

"I feel a little betrayed. It's difficult to understand why he would do something like that. It was totally unexpected," he said.

Bissonnette also admitted that the situation surrounding Lapointe had given him "pause" about running for another term. He added that he has decided to run for what would be his final term.

In their statement, Vieau and Brunetti said "that in a Facebook post by Bissonnette today [Sept. 12] he still refuses to accept responsibility for his actions and is attempting to mislead voters by saying the forgeries total only in the dozens and not in the hundreds."

Bissonnette had written, "Thank you to the AG and her staff for a thorough and professional investigation of this entire matter. Very wrong, very stupid and ultimately very disappointing to see democracy misused like that — leaves me feeling a little betrayed. I regret that dozens of unsuspecting people had their identities stolen and that over 1,500 voters who asked in good faith for the chance to vote on the ballot question never got that chance."

Wagner, who has clashed with the mayor on several issues, said in a statement, "The issues of forgery, voter fraud, and identity theft are serious matters, which fuel public outrage and cynicism of those guilty of such acts. Today's action by the AG provides a small amount of justice for Chicopee residents and voters whose civil rights were violated by the actions of those who put self-interest before the public's interest. The integrity of the electoral process is provided by the Constitution and by law, and men and women have sacrificed their lives throughout our nation's history to provide and protect that right. This is a sad day for the city of Chicopee."

City Clerk Keith Rattell, who won a re-election bid last year marked by criticism by Bissonnette about his job performance said, "As city clerk, I am committed to protecting the petition process and the honesty of elections in Chicopee. It was obvious to almost everyone that there were hundreds of forgeries on the petitions. As Chicopee's elected city clerk, I will always be an independent voice on behalf of Chicopee voters and I will expose any fraudulent attempt to obtain ballot access, regardless of which ever individuals or organizations are behind it."

The question now is whether or not there will be renewed hostility between members of the City Council and Bissonnette. Last week, the City Council voted not to adopt building codes that would have made Chicopee a "Green Community" by state standards, which would have made it eligible to apply for numerous grants.

Bissonnette and the Electric Light Commission had worked with state authorities for the city to be made exempt from a surcharge that would have been on electric bills something that has been applied to other communities in the Commonwealth that were awarded the status.

He is hoping "a couple of sour apples" wouldn't affect the process of governing the city.

Bissonnette said, "The ball's in their court. The petty political shots they continue to take make me discouraged about the future of politics in the city of Chicopee."

He added, "I can work with anyone."