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Board clerk is focus in ballot tampering; Democratic worker eyed after copies were premarked for Collins

Investigators probing tampered absentee ballots marked for Republican County Executive Chris Collins are now focusing on a Democratic clerk at the Erie County Board of Elections, according to several sources familiar with the situation.

Though an arrest in the case was termed "imminent" Friday by Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman after detectives from the Erie County Sheriff's Office were dispatched to the board, spokeswoman Mary Murray on Wednesday would only say that the investigation is continuing and that nothing can now be confirmed or denied.

"We plan on making an arrest in the near future," Murray said. "Until then, we will analyze the evidence and put together a solid case while conferring with the district attorney."

Collins spokesman Stefan Mychajliw last week blamed Democratic county executive candidate Mark C. Poloncarz for "irrational zeal to blame others" via Twitter messages aimed at the Collins campaign. Poloncarz has since backed off his original assertions.

But sheriff's investigators also emphasized last week that they did not suspect the tampering was linked in any way to the campaigns of either Collins or Poloncarz.

And while highly placed political sources say an expected campaign appearance on behalf of Poloncarz by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was postponed Wednesday because of the continuing probe, a spokesman for the governor said Cuomo is "unequivocally" committed to the visit toward the end of the campaign.

"He is still coming and coordinating with the campaign on the timing of the visit," said the spokesman, who asked not to be identified.

The tampering case centers around at least 10 ballots mailed to absentee voters in Lackawanna who complained they were already marked for Collins on either the Republican or Independence lines. After an internal probe, board officials last week called in sheriff's investigators when they suspected election fraud had been committed.

While the board employee under scrutiny in the probe had not reported to work for several days, board sources indicate the clerk produced a doctor's note authorizing the absence.

Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr said last week that the situation is puzzling because the handful of bipartisan employees who had access to the ballots as they were prepared for mailing were in each other's presence, and any tampering attempt would have been noticed. He said that neither political campaign had access to the ballots and that the small number in question -- 10 out of approximately 10,000 -- could make virtually no difference in the outcome of the election.