Jim Kenyon: Lebanon double-voting case stems from a ‘double life’

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 9/19/2020 9:48:01 PM
Modified: 9/20/2020 9:29:07 AM

Since his arrest earlier this month for allegedly voting twice — once as a man, once as a woman — during the 2016 presidential election in Lebanon, Vince Marzello has slipped into survival mode.

“I’m laying low,” Marzello told me on Thursday. “Except for going to work and going out to get groceries, I stay in my apartment.”

Marzello, a 65-year-old fast-food worker, is no stranger to struggle. But these days, there’s no escaping his newfound notoriety.

Not with a deeply divided nation headed to the polls in six weeks. Not in a battleground state. Not with a president who riles up his legions with tweet after tweet about mostly mythical cases of voter fraud and simultaneously encourages them to vote twice — in person and by mail — to test the security of elections systems.

Marzello’s name and photo now pop up on Facebook pages for TV stations in Baltimore, San Antonio and Chattanooga, Tenn. The stories link to a video shot in a White River Junction parking lot, where Marzello answers a stranger’s questions about double voting.

Unbeknownst to Marzello, the man worked for a national right-wing activist group with deep pockets, and he was recording the exchange. In August, Project Veritas dispatched an investigator to the Upper Valley to track down Marzello and trick him into spilling his guts on hidden camera.

Project Veritas has made election fraud — or at least the appearance of voter wrongdoing — a focal point of its well-known undercover sting operations.

Veritas often uses secret recordings to attack the credibility of Democrats and what it calls the “mainstream media.” During the 2016 presidential campaign, Veritas released videos that falsely accused Hillary Clinton of paying people to stoke violence at Donald Trump rallies.

Veritas was founded in 2010 by a then-20-something, James O’Keefe. In a 2017 New York Times profile, O’Keefe said he started Veritas from “my parents’ basement with a laptop” that he bankrolled with “credit card debit.”

Some of his undercover operations have targeted — with varying amounts of success — employees at Planned Parenthood, CNN, the Times, and The Washington Post.

O’Keefe oversees a nonprofit with dozens of employees, for which he’s paid handsomely. O’Keefe earned $387,000 in 2018, according to federal tax filings. That same year, Project Veritas received $8.7 million in contributions and grants.

Along the way he’s attracted a large fan base, including the current occupant of the White House. In 2015, Trump’s foundation donated $10,000 to Project Veritas, the Times has reported.

But what in the world led Veritas to target Marzello?

The story started with a tip from “someone who’d had a long-standing relationship with Veritas and had helped us with stories in the past,” Veritas spokesman Neil McCabe told me.

After Veritas’ story came out, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office charged Marzello with wrongful voting — a felony that carries a prison sentence of up to seven years. In a separate civil action, the state has hit Marzello with a $3,000 fine for using a name other than his own to cast a vote. (The Valley News reported Marzello’s arrest on its Sept. 4 front page.)

But Marzello’s story is less about alleged voter fraud than about the struggles of an older man who wrestles with his identity and has moved from one low-paying job to another during his 17 years in the Upper Valley. And it’s been capitalized on by a multimillion-dollar gotcha outfit using a highly unusual case to score cheap political points.

Marzello, who grew up in upstate New York, lives in a basement apartment on a long residential street in West Lebanon. “We don’t see much of him,” a neighbor told me. “He sticks to himself.”

Earlier this year, Marzello worked a few months as a dishwasher before switching over to a fast-food restaurant. He has all he can do, keeping up with rent, a car-lease payment and credit card bills.

Public records show that Marzello has been a registered voter in Lebanon since at least 2012, when he cast a ballot in the Republican presidential primary.

In November 2016, Marzello voted as an independent. Also voting in that election was Helen Ashley, a 32-year-old woman and registered Democrat living at the same address as Marzello.

Under New Hampshire election laws, a person who doesn’t have a photo ID and is unfamiliar to officials working the polls is required to sign a “challenged voter affidavit” before entering the voting booth. They must also consent to having their photo taken. In the photo accompanying Ashley’s affidavit, the person has shoulder-length dark hair and is dressed in women’s clothing.

Who is Helen Ashley?

She’s Marzello’s “other persona,” he told me. For some time, Marzello has been leading a “double life” about which he “didn’t tell anyone,” he said during our first of two phone conversations last week.

Marzello has also talked with Jezebel.com, a left-leaning website. Jezebel brought in a New York private investigator to help with its reporting and research for a recent story. Marzello’s interviews with the website have shed light on how Veritas’ story unfolded.

On Aug. 21, Marzello was approached by someone wearing a long black wig in the parking lot at the recycling center in Hartford where he drops off bottles and cans. When the stranger referred to him as Helen, Marzello was caught off guard.

In an interview with Jezebel, Marzello said he’d been too trusting and shared his story with the stranger, who already seemed to know quite a bit about him. (Marzello told me that he didn’t find out until later that their conversation was secretly videotaped, which is legal in Vermont but not in New Hampshire.)

Marzello grappled to explain the relationship between his separate identities in an interview with Jezebel.

“Vincent is Vince, and does Vince things. Helen is Helen, and does Helen things,” he told the website. “They don’t come together; they’re separate. I used to try to fight it there, for a while. I don’t know. I can’t explain it. The relationship — there really isn’t a relationship, other than two people in one body or whatever, I guess.”

Conservatives want to make Marzello’s case out to be more than it is. Marzello wasn’t part of a grand scheme in New Hampshire to tip the 2016 president election in Clinton’s favor (she won the state by 2,700 votes, or 0.3%).

Marzello said he cast Vince’s ballot for a third-party candidate. “I’m not even sure who my other persona voted for,” he said.

New Hampshire State Police began looking into whether Marzello had double voted long before Veritas entered the picture.

On Aug. 13, 2019, Helen Ashley showed up at the DMV office in Newport to obtain a New Hampshire Voter Identification Card, according to state records.

But a clerk became suspicious when Ashley couldn’t provide a driver’s license or another form of government ID. Ashley only had a “voter identification card voucher,” issued at the Lebanon City Clerk’s office. She’d obtained the card after signing affidavits — sworn under penalty of perjury — that she was providing her real name, mailing address and other personal information.

A DMV supervisor reviewed video surveillance tape of the office’s parking lot that showed Ashley driving a car registered to Marzello.

The state police was called to investigate suspected identity fraud. Details of the investigation are outlined in a Sept. 2, 2020, letter the Attorney General’s Office sent to Marzello, informing him of his civil penalty.

A state police detective and trooper questioned Marzello at the Lebanon police station on Oct. 18, 2019. “After being presented with evidence and supporting documentation,” Marzello admitted to voting “once as Vincent Marzello and again as Helen Elisabeth Ashley” in the 2016 election.

On Jan. 9, 2020, Detective Chris Decker, who headed the state police investigation, contacted the AG’s Election Law Unit to report “allegations of potential voter fraud.”

Why did Attorney General Gordon MacDonald’s office wait eight months before charging Marzello with wrongful voting?

O’Keefe argues it was a “possible cover-up or at best, incompetence.”

MacDonald, a 1979 Hanover High School graduate, acknowledged in a phone interview with O’Keefe that Veritas was the “catalyst” that led to his office moving forward with charging Marzello. The interview is part of Veritas’ 11-minute video about the case.

“We need to do better,” MacDonald said in the interview. “And we have a plan in place to do better.”

I talked with O’Keefe last week. When a 61-year-old man can also vote as a 32-year-old woman it “shows how broken the (voting system) is in New Hampshire,” he said. “There are probably a lot more of these cases.”

I’m not sure about that.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law has been delving into the issue nationally for more than decade.

In a January 2017 report, the Brennan Center writes “sensationalist claims” by the president and his followers “garner media attention, and frighten and concern voters. But putting rhetoric aside to look at the facts makes it clear that fraud by voters is vanishingly rare, and does not happen on a scale even close to that necessary to ‘rig’ an election.”

On its website, Veritas makes it seem that Marzello was more than just a double voter. The “bombshell,” as Veritas’ headline calls it, has to do with Marzello being a “NH Elections Official.”

Not quite.

Earlier this year, Marzello allegedly used the name Helen Ashley when applying online to the New Hampshire Democratic Party for a ballot clerk’s position at the Lebanon polls in the upcoming election.

“They are the folks who check voters in at the polls,” Lebanon City Clerk Kristin Kenniston explained in an email.

Ballot clerks tend to be Democratic and Republican activists with the jobs divided between the two parties. But party politics isn’t what motivated Marzello. With money tight, he was attracted by the $10 an hour.

Ashley was among 20 names on a list that state Democratic leaders sent Kenniston, which was far more people than Lebanon needed at its three polling sites on Election Day.

“My office was never going to use Helen Ashley as a ballot clerk,” Kenniston told me. From talks with state police, “I knew that person was being investigated,” she said.

With his arrest now public, Marzello worries the attention the case has drawn will give his employer pause. “I can’t lose my job,” he said. “I have bills to pay.”

He has 30 days to pay the $3,000 civil fine or file an appeal in Superior Court. Marzello plans to appeal, but he needs a lawyer.

He’s filled out the paperwork to get a public defender to represent him in the felony case. Since he doesn’t earn a lot of money and he faces potential jail time, I expect he’ll qualify.

Marzello doesn’t have family nearby, but he wonders if they’ve heard about his predicament.

“I can’t see my family now,” he said. “I’m holding my head in shame.

“After this is over, I’m going to be moving far away.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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