CROWN POINT — A divided Lake County Board of Elections tossed out a complaint against three St. John council candidates on Saturday, but left the door open for a probe into whether they colluded with a local restaurant in violation of campaign law.
At a special hearing of election grievances ahead of the May 7 primary, the board voted 3-2 to dismiss a complaint against Republican challengers Paul Panczuk, Bryan Blazak and Wayne Pondinas.
The complaint, filed by incumbents Mark Barenie, Libby Popovic, Rose Hejl and Mike Forbes, alleges the three challengers violated election law by encouraging St. John residents to take advantage of a discount a local restaurant was offering to primary voters.
As evidence, the petitioners submitted posts attributed to the official Facebook campaign pages of the three candidates. The posts remind voters to participate in a promotion offered by Sips & Stones, which was offering a 20% discount to any customer displaying an “I Voted” sticker from early voting.
“Make sure you get an I VOTED sticker after you vote and walk down the mall a little ways to Sips & Stones to enjoy great food and beverages with a 20% discount on your tab when you show … your sticker,” an April 17 Blazak campaign post states.
According to the petitioners, that post and similar messages posted by the Panczuk and Pondinas campaigns ran afoul of a section of the Indiana election code that makes it a felony to pay an individual for voting. The complaint asked the elections board to make a determination that a violation had occurred and to refer the matter to the Lake County prosecutor’s office.
During deliberations, the board struggled with the question of whether highlighting a local restaurant’s promotion amounted to a “payment” under the law. Michael Tolbert, the board’s Democratic attorney, noted that the Barenie group’s original complaint did not include evidence the three candidates had worked with the restaurant to create the voter promotion.
“It doesn’t appear (the respondents) are offering anything of value to secure a vote,” he said.
Ultimately, the five-member board adopted a narrow approach, considering only Facebook posts in question and tabling questions of possible collusion for further investigation. But board members split along party lines on how to proceed with the complaint.
Republican members Dana Dumezich and Michael Mellon offered a motion to refer the complaint to counsel, which would allow more time to determine if a violation had occurred. The board’s Democratic board members — chairman Kevin Smith, Lorenzo Arredondo and Dennis Hawrot — voted against the motion and approved their own motion to dismiss the complaint.
The board unanimously approved a motion to send a cease and desist letter to Sips & Stones and look into whether the restaurant’s promotion violated campaign law.
“We’re happy to be rightfully exonerated,” Panczuk said of the outcome. “We look forward to getting on with the campaign.”
Blazak said the Barenie group’s complaint was a late attempt by the St. John Republican Party to undermine the campaigns of disfavored candidates.
“We did nothing wrong,” Blazak said of the Facebook posts. “This is them just trying to give us a hard time.”
Lake County Councilman Christian Jorgensen, who doubles as the chair of the St. John Republican organization, had a different take on the outcome. He noted that the board’s decision to probe the origins of the Sips & Stones promotion could reveal the restaurant did not come up with the idea for the promotion on its own.
“The owner of Sips & Stones is going to get an order to appear before the elections board, and they are going to ask if these candidates had anything to do with it,” Jorgensen, who is backing Barenie and the other petitioners for re-election, told The Times.
“There is going to be an investigation, so it certainly wasn’t a loss (for my candidates),” he added.
In other business, the board partially upheld a complaint against Lake County Assessor Jerome Prince, who is running for Gary mayor.
The complaint against Prince accused him of failing to include a “paid for” disclaimer on an election mailer sent to Gary residents. It further alleged that Prince’s mailer, which referred to his position as county assessor, improperly announced “important information for homeowners,” making it seem like an official letter from the assessor’s office.
At the hearing, Prince conceded the mailer failed to include a disclaimer as required by law. The omission was the result of a mistake by the printer, according to Prince’s attorney Darnail Lyles.
In a 5-0 vote, the board approved a $100 fine against Prince’s campaign for the lack of a disclaimer, but rejected the implication that his mailer was an improper use of public resources for political purposes.
“We’re pleased the board saw the other complaint as frivolous,” Prince told The Times. “I have not and will not ever utilize public resources to advance my political or personal agenda.”