SOUTH BLOOMING GROVE - One of two candidates in the upcoming village election who want to remove the incumbents from the ballot was dismissed from the related court case because she never showed up to court.
Orange County Supreme Court Justice Craig S. Brown dismissed LaShanta Stephenson’s challenge Thursday. She was ordered to appear in court that day as part of her and running mate George Kalaj’s attempt to knock current South Blooming Grove Mayor James LoFranco and Trustee Sue Anne Vogelsberg off the March 18 village election ballot. But Stephenson failed to appear in court, despite her attorney Daniel Szalkiewicz’s insistence that she told him she would show up.
Stephenson is running for village trustee, sharing the slate with Kalaj for mayor and Yitzchok Feldman for trustee. Stephenson and Kalaj – alleging fraudulent signatures on their opponents’ nominating petitions - filed suit on Feb. 14 against LoFranco, trustees Vogesberg and James Mullany, Village Clerk Kerry Dougerty, and the Orange County Board of Elections. Mullany’s name was removed from the suit earlier this week after he passed away on Feb. 25.
The court case began on Tuesday, and depositions were made Wednesday. On Thursday, both sides met again in court to argue their cases. In addition to seeking dismissal of Kalaj and Stephenson’s claims, defense attorneys filed a counter-claim accusing the plaintiffs of abusing the election process. The basis for that counter-claim was that, when deposed, Kalaj appeared to have no knowledge of what his court challenge actually said, nor did he know who was financing his campaign, defense attorneys alleged in court. Brown dismissed the counter-claim with prejudice, which allows LoFranco and Vogelsberg to file a new lawsuit with the same accusations.
“We have a ghost of an accuser,” said Lawrence Garvey, representing LoFranco and Vogelsberg. The unofficial transcript of Kalaj’s deposition was given to the judge, but was not entered into public record because Kalaj did not show up on Thursday to sign it.
Langdon Chapman represented the Board of Elections in court, and said the board is not part of the counter-claim; however, he echoed Garvey’s thoughts.
“Every (court) petition starts with a petitioner,” Chapman said. “I’ve never seen a case where a petitioner had no idea about the facts of the petition he brought…It struck me, quite frankly, as a sham.”
Szalkiewicz said the depositions were “improperly ordered.”
“It’s accurate that Mr. Kalaj didn’t see the petition, but he spoke with us before the petition and gave us permission to file it,” Szalkiewicz said. “He was aware we were filing a petition on his behalf. It doesn’t take away from the fact that invalid petitions were filed.”
Kalaj and Stephenson initially challenged 90 of the roughly 195 signatures collected for the People First party, the candidates of which were LoFranco, Vogelsberg and Mullany. After a conference Wednesday in court, that challenge was trimmed to 20 signatures and 22 technicalities, Szalkiewicz said. After the end of court on Thursday, Kalaj’s case hinged on the validity of a single signature, and the judge hadn’t rendered a decision: Brown said he would email his decision to the lawyers either that night or Friday morning.
By Friday afternoon, no decision had been announced.