The envelope looked official enough. "URGENT," it read, "Absentee Voter Information Enclosed."
But when a Brighton resident who'd requested an absentee ballot opened the letter, she was disturbed to find that it contained no ballot, nor any "information" related to voting absentee. Instead, the envelope was stuffed with campaign materials promoting the candidacies of Republican State Senate candidate Joe Robach and Republican County Court Judge Alex Renzi.
It also contained a letter "From the Desk of Maggie Brooks" urging the recipient --- in this case, a registered Democrat --- to vote for the Republican Party ticket in this year's state and national races. The letter is signed "Maggie Brooks," and beneath her signature, she included her title, "Monroe County Clerk."
"When she opened it, she was quite aggravated and showed it to me," says the woman's husband, who, like his wife, requested anonymity as whistleblowers. "Both of us realized there was nothing official about it at all. We questioned whether or not it was legal for the Board of Elections to turn over the information to a political party, and [for Brooks] to use a ruse like that to push a candidate."
In fact, it's not only legal, but, according to Monroe County Board of Elections Commissioner Peter Quinn, the board is required by state law to provide lists of citizens requesting absentee ballots to party officials or anyone else who wants them, for a nominal fee. Whether it's legal for Brooks, an elected public official, to use "a ruse" to promote political candidates is another matter.
Lee Daghlian, director of public information for the New York State Board of Elections, says he's "never heard of a [county] clerk doing that."
Though the letter is purportedly from the county clerk's "desk," it's not on official county stationary, and at the very bottom of the letter, in small print, is a disclaimer: "Not paid for at taxpayer expense."
By law, government officials can neither promote nor disparage political candidates using public funds. Brooks and her fellow Republicans "obviously know if they'd done that on official stationary or something like that and the public is paying for it," they'd be breaking the law, Daghlian says.
In Daghlian's opinion, the disclaimer probably keeps the mailing within the letter of the law. "I think it'd pass muster because of the zinger she throws in," he says.
Not everyone is so sure.
"I think the most disappointing thing about it is how it comes, marked 'urgent absentee ballot information,'" says Monroe County Democratic Party chair Ted O'Brien. "It makes it look like it's an official government letter. Then you've got inside [a letter] from the desk of the Monroe County Clerk. It looks like it's some kind of an official notification of what you're supposed to do.
"I think that probably does cross the line, but it's not surprising," O'Brien continues. "The county clerk has spent an enormous amount of her time on partisan activities, rather than governmental activities, and this is the latest example."
O'Brien, a lawyer, says he's not sure if his party will take legal action based on the mailing. "If we really thought that there was a violation of law, we clearly would," he says. "I just don't know yet whether this would constitute that. But it's clearly deceptive."
"It's literally within the letter of the law, but not the intent of the law," says the Brighton resident whose wife received Brooks' letter. "It's very shabby," he continues. "The Monroe County Clerk shouldn't send out something that's political."
"The letter shows that Maggie Brooks and the Republicans don't mind deceiving citizens in an effort to get campaign materials in their hands," says Green Party of Monroe County Chair Jason Crane.
"If it weren't for the fact that the first impression one gets from the letter is that this is from Brooks the official, not Brooks the campaigner, you might just chalk this up to shrewd advertising," Crane continues. "But to the average voter, it has a very official look, and it smacks of an abuse of position on Brooks's part... We need to elect representatives who are more concerned about working for the people than about working the people."
Legally, the letter inhabits "a gray area," Crane says. "But certainly, I think it raises some serious ethical questions" --- serious ethical questions Brooks seems loathe to address.
Brooks' secretary at the County Clerk's office initially said her boss was temporarily unavailable for comment. But the secretary subsequently called back and said the letter "has nothing to do with us," despite the fact Brooks signed it as "Monroe County Clerk."
"We can't take political calls," the secretary said, referring the matter to county Republican headquarters, located at 301 Exchange Boulevard, the return address on the envelope.
County Republican Party Chairman Stephen Minarik III, did not return calls seeking comment.