NEW YORK CITY — Billionaire supermarket magnate and Republican mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis is bankrolling a lawsuit trying to halt a takeover of the beleaguered city Board of Elections.
The lawsuit, filed by Queens County GOP Chairman Phil Ragusa in New York Supreme Court Friday, accuses three Republican City Councilmen of wrongly ousting former Board of Elections Commissioner Judith Stupp and installing their own pick in her place.
The filing stems from a dramatic and unexpected shake-up at the Board of Elections, which has faced an onslaught of criticism in recent years following long lines and confusion at the polls.
According to the Republican Councilmen, the five Republican country chairs as well as a number of Democrats who are responsible for appointing the Board of Elections commissioners failed to file the routine paperwork this year re-nominating their picks to the board.
Without the formal nominations, the councilmen swept in, taking advantage of a rarely-used provision that allows them to appoint new commissioners themselves.
"In our case, the Republican caucus chose to to exercise its authority," said Republican Queens City Councilman Daniel Halloran, whose caucus has already ousted the Queens and Brooklyn commissioners, and is weighing doing the same for the Manhattan, Bronx and Staten Island appointees.
But in the suit, Regusa claims his county's Republicans held a meeting in November 2012, where members unanimously voted to recommend Stupp's renomination. Regusa claims he signed "a Certificate of Recommendation" two days later and mailed copies to the City Council's Republican Minority Leader James Oddo and the City Council clerk on Nov. 19.
"There is a presumption that a document mailed by first class mail is received by the addressee within five days after it was mailed," they argued in the court documents.
As a result, they say, the councilmen's decision to appoint Michael Michel in Stupp's place on Jan. 25 "is null and void."
Republican City Councilmen Vincent Ignizio, one of the three lawmakers named in the suit, laughed off the argument.
"The basis of the lawsuit is equivalent to the 'dog ate my homework' defense and I think it will be treated as such by the courts," said Ignizio, who said he was confident that he and his colleagues were in the right.
“The law clearly stated, if you failed to do your job, then that job will be taken away for you," he said.
Regusa could not immediately be reached for comment. Instead, his attorney Lawrence Mandelker, referred all requests for comment on the case to Rob Ryan, a Republican working for Catsimatidis, who recently launched his campaign for mayor.
Ragusa and the Queens County GOP recently endorsed Catsimatidis as their pick for mayor, deeply angering some members of the party.
“John Catsimatidis always supports his friends and Phil Regusa and the Queens GOP have been friends for a long time," said Ryan when asked about Catsimatidis' involvement in the case.
Sources have said the councilmen's move to take over the Board of Elections is an attempt to undermine the power of the GOP chairmen and take control of the party.
“This is a move to try to create mayhem in the individual country boroughs," said one source close to the campaign, who explained that hiring staffers at the Board of Elections is one of the county leaders' key jobs.
“This is a clear way of muddying the water," he said.
But Halloran defended the coup, which he said was intended to shake up the Board of Elections, which has spent two years without an executive director and endured constant criticism.
"It's been a leaderless ship. There's no one at the rudder," he said. "We need to steer the Board of Elections to a place where things can get done and done efficiently, fairly and honestly without political patronage being the watchword.
"Unfortunately, that's something that's been the case for many, many decades."