Controversy in the 158th District
● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
On the heels of an objection filed in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania that challenges his method of circulating nominating petitions, Kennett Square attorney Leonard Rivera, the Republican candidate for State House in the 158th District, withdrew his name last week from the ballot.
He will continue to campaign for the seat, as a write-in candidate, for a primary election that will be held on April 26. His opponent is Democrat Susan Rzucidlo, who is campaigning for the seat for a fourth time. The election to determine the representative for the district will be held Nov. 8.
The objection, submitted by West Chester attorney Samuel Stretton on behalf of petitioners Diane Hicks, James Steele and Kimberly Steele on March 10, challenges the method by which Rivera obtained the 620 nominating petitions -- a little more than double the 300 signatures needed to be included on the ballot. While Rivera circulated 17 nominating positions himself, the objection stated that he did not personally obtain 96 signatures. To support the objection's claim, it lists the names of several people who have given verbal statements, claiming that Rivera was not present when he circulated the petition.
The petitioners contended that since there were six petitions circulated by Rivera that are "blatantly incorrect with false affidavits because he wasn't present," the remaining 11 petitions should be struck from the record.
"If an individual, particularly someone who is a lawyer, gives false affidavits on six petitions, then all petitions he circulated should also be stricken," the objection stated. "If that was the case, that would be an additional 214 signatures that would be stricken."
"The case law is very clear that the circulator has to be present," the objection stated. "Therefore, 96 signatures (that) are on these six petitions should be stricken."
The objection was submitted on the heels of an investigation by Rzucidlo and members of her campaign committee into the methods by which Rivera obtained the signatures. Rzucidlo said that she and members of her campaign obtained copies of Rivera's petitions from an on-line source, and reviewed them for any irregularities. They then tracked the path Rivera took during the time he obtained the signed petitions, asking occupants if they had met Rivera, or whether they were approached by a volunteer, only. To provide the residents with a visual guide, they held up a photograph of Rivera for verification of identity.
Some residents told Rzucidlo that Rivera was not with them when they signed the petition.
"We went back later with a notary and got signed statements from the residents, verifying that they did not sign petitions in the presence of Rivera -- that it was not Lenny at the door," Rzucidlo told the Chester County Press.
The objection went on to claim that three people who signed the petition are not registered Republicans; that six of the signers are not registered at the address they listed on the petition; that six signatures are illegible; that 56 signatures have omitted information; and that 16 signatures seem to have been written in the same hand.
Rivera told the Chester County Press that he was present during the acquisition of signatures. He said that he went together from door to door, and held the master list, telling his volunteers that he would visit a particular house while assigning neighboring houses to his volunteers. In order to verify that he was following the letter of the law, Rivera spoke with Scott Withers, his attorney, who told Rivera that it seemed to be accepted behavior, given that Rivera was in the vicinity of his family and volunteers who were gathering signatures.
"I was right there," Rivera said. "I was not aware I was in violation. This is the first time I ran, and I was told what I was doing was okay."
A look at Commonwealth law supports evidence that Rivera is in violation of the 15-year-old Nomination Petition of Flaherty (770 A.2d 327, 336), a law passed by the Commonwealth Court in 2001 that states that each circulator of a signature page contained in a candidate's nomination petition must attach a separate affidavit declaring that the signers personally signed the petition with full knowledge of the contents of the petition -- and that the circulator needs to be present when each signer agrees to sign the petition.
What has alarmed Rzucidlo most is the fact that Rivera, an attorney, was not aware of the Flaherty petition.
"It's a fifteen year law, and he's an attorney," she said. "Why would any voter vote for someone who has so little respect for the process and the law? What's the first thing he's going to do if he's elected for the office? If this law is too much of a technicality for him to follow, what's the next one that is?"
A first-generation American and long-time resident of New Garden Township, Rivera has served as an attorney for more than 25 years, as well as served as a member of several non-profit organizations boards, including La Communidad Hispana, the Kennett Area YMCA, the Longwood Rotary Club, and the Pennsylvania Latino Advisory Board.
"I'm not dropping out of the race in light of the case, and I do not wish to divert my attention from the campaign, and take up the court's time," Rivera said. "I take my honesty and integrity very seriously. I want the constituents of the 158th District to know that I went door to door, and gathered over 600 signatures."
This issue represents the second time in two years the Chester County Republican Committee has faced controversy in the race for the 158th District seat. In 2014, after reports spread that he was the subject of a criminal investigation, Cuyler Walker resigned his campaign over what he called “personal issues.” On Sept. 26, 2014, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania granted Walker's petition to withdraw his candidacy. Subsequently, State Rep. Chris Ross, who had originally announced his intention to retire in December of 2014, was selected by the committee to replace Walker, and won a tenth term when he defeated Rzucidlo in the general election.
The objection, whose legal fees are being paid for by Rzucidlo, is just another example of political low balling, Rivera said.
"At the end of the day, voters are concerned about my commitment to the community, my background, my legal experience, having lived here for 20 years, with a wife and three kids who have attended Kennett High School," Rivera said. "I think this is political posturing by my opponent, to divert attention from how Gov. Wolf wants to increase the taxes of Chester County residents, so that we would have the highest taxes of anyone in the Commonwealth, something that people are just not ready for.
"(My opponent) is trying to make me look bad, so that she can divert attention away from the issues."
Rzucidlo insists that her battle to bring Rivera's violations to light is not a superfluous campaign antic, but an intention to draw voter's attention to political ethics, an issue that has traditionally been a cornerstone in each of her three previous campaigns for the House seat.
"For me, this is not a 'D' vs. 'R' issue," she said. "If I knew a Democrat who did the same thing, I would've fought this hard to get this changed. Before you get to issues, you have to know that the person who is running is willing to follow the law, to be ethical, and be competent enough to know what the law is. This is not a minor issue. The man (Rivera) broke the law. Is it a competence issue? Is it an ethics issue, or both? Either way, it means that he really should not be in Harrisburg.
"Typically, when I talk about ethics, people's eyes glaze over, but if you don't start from a place of ethics, you can't ever begin to have that conversation about the other issues," Rzucidlo said. "You have to know that the people who are there, are there to follow the law."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .