Ward leader tells of sparking Renee Tartaglione probe

Posted: December 08, 2010

A few days before May's primary election, Renee Tartaglione stood among a group of ward leaders at Philadelphia's Democratic Party headquarters and collected two checks from party treasurer and State Rep. Frank Oliver.

The money was intended to go to her mother - the city commissioners' legendary and longtime chairwoman - and her husband, both ward leaders. It was "walking-around money" to be used on Election Day.

Philadelphia State Rep. Angel Cruz, another ward leader there to likewise accept the party's routine Election Day support, whipped out his cell phone and photographed Tartaglione taking the checks from Oliver.

Then he forwarded the image to Philadelphia's Board of Ethics as potential evidence in a confidential complaint alleging that Tartaglione - the chief deputy of Philadelphia's elections office - was violating city law. Tartaglione, who was responsible for ensuring fair elections, was instead engaging in politics, compromising the impartiality of the elections office along the way, Cruz said. It was the start of a 14-month investigation.

Cruz publicly recounted his actions Tuesday in response to the Ethics Board's announcement a day earlier that Tartaglione, in a settlement agreement, had admitted to nine City Charter violations - including collecting Democratic Party checks for her mother, Margaret Tartaglione, and husband, Carlos Matos, six times between 2007 and 2009. The photo was not mentioned in the settlement.

As part of the settlement agreement, Renee Tartaglione agreed to pay a $2,700 civil fine, forgo city employment for one year, and retire from the elections office as of Nov. 16.

"I'm moving on with my life, and I feel good about the person I am," Tartaglione said in a brief interview Tuesday.

But Cruz's concerns are broader than the checks Tartaglione accepted.

In a settlement agreement made public between the Ethics Board and Tartaglione, she also confessed to ordering 2,000 ballots aimed at hurting Cruz's 2008 reelection chances by deliberately misleading voters to press an incorrect ballot button.

She conceded that she tried to weaken Cruz again in 2009 by paying for 5,100 sample ballots promoting the campaigns of 32 challenger candidates for election judge and machine inspector in Cruz's Latino-dominated Seventh Ward in North Philadelphia.

It was all part of an eight-year effort, Cruz said, by Tartaglione, her husband, and her sister, State Sen. Christine Tartaglione, to "use the election board" to "attack" him and prevent him from taking her sister's Senate seat.

"They have used that office for everything except what it's supposed to be used for," said Cruz, whose early friendship with the Tartaglione-Matos family ended in 2002.

Cruz on Tuesday said he intended to request financial audits of Philadelphia's elections office by the U.S. Justice Department and Pennsylvania's secretary of state.

He said he believed District Attorney Seth Williams should also investigate Renee Tartaglione based on the Ethics Board's findings. A spokeswoman for Williams did not return a call. Ethics Board executive director Shane Creamer would not comment on whether the board referred the case to the District Attorney's Office, citing confidentiality rules.

At the same time, Cruz revealed that he has potential troubles of his own - and pointed fingers at the Tartagliones.

He said the state attorney general on Tuesday subpoenaed six Democratic committee people from the Seventh and 19th Wards who live in his 180th House District. The subpoenas followed questions state investigators asked during the last two months, he said, about the nominating petitions that Cruz submitted for his May primary reelection effort.

But at a news conference at his legislative office, Cruz sought to keep the spotlight on the elections office, highlighting shortcomings and what he called "mischief."

He pointed to campaign-finance records showing that Tartaglione had collected Democratic Party money to fund Election Day activities for years. On Oct. 31, 2003, for instance, she received two party checks for "election day expenses" totaling $11,250.

Asked if he was aware of Tartaglione's activities, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the city's Democratic Party, declined to comment through a spokesman Tuesday.

Matos, who until 2009 was in jail for bribing three Atlantic City councilmen, has been on the party's payroll since his release, collecting about $300 a week.

On Monday, Tartaglione's lawyer, William Brennan, characterized the Ethics Board's findings as "technical" in nature.

On Tuesday, Creamer dismissed that description as "silly." "She potentially undermined the integrity of the election process," he said, "and there can be no question that Tartaglione's political activity constitutes a substantive material violation of the City Charter."

Reached Tuesday afternoon, Margaret Tartaglione said her daughter's actions did not harm the reputation of the elections office or hurt its ability to conduct fair elections. "No, no, no. . . . We found out what it was, it's over."

She said Renee Tartaglione, whom she sees every day, had apologized to her. "She's my daughter, she's a hard worker, a good worker, and I love her."


Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.

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