GREENWOOD TWP— Town Clerk Ellen Trancheff is under fire after allegedly distributing campaign cards for herself and township supervisor candidate Don Doroff to at least one resident who had come to the town hall last week to obtain an absentee ballot application for the upcoming township election.
A second township resident alleges that Trancheff's husband Pat, who serves as township maintenance director, gave him campaign material along with the ballot application when he had stopped into the town hall a couple weeks earlier. The resident said Pat Trancheff provided him the materials with his wife sitting nearby.
Trancheff, who has served as clerk for decades, is facing her most serious electoral challenge in years after engineering an 85-percent pay raise for herself in 2015.
The township has been locked in controversy over what many in the township view as overly lavish salaries for township and fire department officials.
While some in the township have alleged election improprieties in the past, the latest allegations came to the attention of St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson, who said he received a phone call last Friday from a constituent, who lives part-time in Greenwood. “He told me that when he went in to get his absentee ballot application, he was given the application along with two campaign cards at the very same time,” said Nelson. “He was upset and I don’t blame him,” said Nelson. “I was upset. This is unacceptable at any level of government.”
Nelson said he immediately reported the allegation to St. Louis County Auditor Don Dicklich, who Nelson said is investigating the matter. “I don’t know the status of it. I do know that officials in Greenwood were contacted and told that the practice had to cease.”
State law, in particular Minn. Stat. 211B.11, Subd. 1, prohibits the distribution or display of campaign materials at polling places, including sites where absentee ballots are distributed or accepted. Violation of the statute is considered a misdemeanor.
The Timberjay later learned the identity of the Greenwood resident involved, Floyd Gentilini, and contacted him by phone in Arizona. But Gentilini declined to speak about the matter other than to say he wanted to leave it to “official channels.”
The Timberjay contacted Trancheff for her version of events and comment, but she declined to respond as of presstime.
The alleged incident came to light almost by accident, since Gentilini was apparently initially unaware of the prohibition on campaigning at the polling place. Gentilini had gone to vote after he learned that an old schoolmate, Carmen DeLuca, was running for supervisor in the township. DeLuca said he had run into Gentilini at the Vermilion Club last week and that the two had begun to talk about the ongoing campaign. Gentilini, who was heading to Arizona later in the week had told DeLuca that he would go vote for him absentee the next day. DeLuca asked him to let him know whether he had been able to do so.
Gentilini called DeLuca the next day and talked to his wife, Ruth, just to let them know that he’d been able to cast his ballot. Ruth DeLuca said that towards the end of the conversation, he mentioned that Trancheff had also handed him campaign cards for herself and another candidate, whom he didn’t know. Ruth DeLuca said she told Gentilini that was a violation of the law and asked if he still had the cards. Gentilini told her he had tossed them in the trash but at DeLuca’s urging, he was able to retrieve them, recovering cards for Trancheff and Doroff.
Gentilini later mailed them to Commissioner Nelson, with the understanding that Nelson will forward them to the county auditor as part of the investigation.
Gentilini isn’t the only Greenwood resident to raise the same concern in the past week. Another resident, who spoke to the Timberjay this week on condition that his name be withheld, said he had a similar experience when he went to pick up an absentee ballot application a couple weeks earlier.
“I just walked in the office and Pat [Trancheff] and Ellen were there. I said I needed an absentee ballot and Pat came out and said all they had were application forms because they were out of ballots.”
The resident said Pat Trancheff handed him an application along with two campaign cards, one for Ellen Trancheff and another for Don Doroff. “Pat made a big deal of telling me that Ellen couldn’t give me the cards,” said the resident, who added that he had no idea that such politicking isn’t allowed where ballots are being distributed.
“I didn’t think anything of it until it was brought to my attention that shenanigans were going on,” he said.
The resident also contacted Commissioner Nelson, on Wednesday, and told Nelson he’d be sending a written statement about the incident.
St. Louis County Elections Supervisor Phil Chapman confirmed that the distribution of campaign materials at a polling place, which includes a site designated for disseminating absentee ballots, is prohibited and he said it’s a prohibition that is routinely covered in both the state and county training offered to township clerks.
Trancheff’s tenure as clerk has grown increasingly controversial in recent years. She faced opposition in her bid for reelection for the first time in years in 2014, but managed to defeat challenger Fred Smith, who was terminally ill at the time of the race, 241-108. She faces potentially tougher competition this year, from Sue Drobac, who is experienced in accounting and bookkeeping as well as providing customer service.
In her last reelection bid, Trancheff was the subject of another election complaint after a voter registration and absentee ballot that she had handled were never forwarded to the county.
John Thompson, who had gone to the town hall to register to vote and pick up an absentee ballot shortly before the 2014 election, learned later from county elections officials that neither his registration nor his ballot had ever been processed. Thompson said he had no idea there had been a problem until he tried to vote in the township election in 2015, but was told by election officials at the time that he wasn’t registered. That prompted him to contact the county auditor to find out what had happened. He said that’s when county officials told him they had no record of his 2014 vote.
Thompson said it was just a fluke that he discovered that his ballot had disappeared. “Had she just run my registration through, I wouldn’t have suspected anything.”
While such alleged infractions can be difficult to prove, since voters typically don’t have any documentation after submitting their ballots to election officials, Thompson had taken the unusual step of copying his ballot and the accompanying witness section, which was signed by Trancheff. Those copies became exhibits in the formal complaint he filed Sept. 15, 2015, with the county attorney. Thompson was visited by a sheriff’s deputy who was charged with investigating the case.
Thompson said he had copied his ballot and other documents because he had developed doubts about Trancheff, stemming from what he viewed as a punitive assessment several years ago on his relatively modest home on Lake Vermilion. Thompson appealed the assessments to both the township and to St. Louis County, which won him a valuation reduction of more than $200,000.
While the incident presents some puzzling questions, St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin confirmed that no charges are pending and the case is considered nonactive unless investigators receive new information.