Lack of secrecy, duplicate ballots become focus of Teamster trial

A secret mail ballot system designed to ensure the integrity of a 2004 Teamster Local 743 election seemed anything but secret, according to an election officer who testified in federal court yesterday.

Patricia Velasco, who was hired to officiate the contentious December 2004 battle between two slates for control of the 12,000 member local, said few controls existed on who received ballots.

She was chiefly responsible for keeping track of ballots and requesting necessary information from local officials, despite their status as incumbents in the contest.

Velasco was testifying yesterday in the criminal trial of three former Teamsters Local 743 officials charged with election fraud. She is not on trial and has not been charged.

The December 2004 election was the second scheduled that year after the first one in October was stopped during the tally. The man who officiated the October election testified Tuesday that he was fired by union officials before counting could resume.

Prosecutors spent Wednesday trying to build a case against former comptroller Thaddeus Bania, alleging that he was behind alterations in a Teamsters database that would steer ballots to the homes of friends and associates of the Unity Slate.

Prosecutor Vincent Falvo yesterday dissected the process of printing and distributing the ballots before the election.

Velasco said she had extra ballots at the Michigan Avenue offices of the American Arbitration Association, where she worked at the time, and fielded telephone requests for duplicate ballots.

Velasco said she would record details of the requests, and Falvo questioned whether someone could have called repeatedly asking for ballots for different individuals. Velasco said it was possible. After further questioning, she also said that because there were no Spanish-speaking officials here in Chicago, some calls would be routed to the headquarters of the association, where another official apparently had access to ballots and may have mailed them to the requester.

"Do you have a record of how many duplicate ballots were sent out from New York?" Falvo asked Velasco. "I do not," she responded. Velasco said she checked every duplicate ballot that was sent back to ensure that no votes were counted more than once.

Joe Sexauer, a business agent for the local, sat through the testimony in the gallery wearing a 743 jacket. Sexauer joined the New Leadership slate after a government-run election was held in 2007 and said it was his birthday and day off, so he hoped to witness the testimony of the local's former president Robert Walston. Walston has pleaded guilty to election fraud and drug charges and pledged to cooperate with prosecutors for a more lenient sentence.

But about 3 p.m., Judge Charles P. Kocoras called the attorneys for a sidebar and thanked the jury for it patience. The trial would be postponed until Monday due to "circumstances beyond anyone's control." David Buvinger, one of the prosecutors, said he hopes to call Walston to the stand next week.

Staff Writer Fernando Diaz covers labor and unions for the Daily News. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 14, or fernando [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.