Political maverick hits final appeal

Brooklyn man whose conviction spurred voting rights activism seeks pardon from Pataki

RICK KARLIN Capitol bureau
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Saturday, November 11, 2006

He's part Don Quixote, part Susan B. Anthony, and he's been trying to clear his name for a decade. Now, time is running short for John Kennedy O'Hara, whose 1997 conviction for illegal voting has become a cause celebre.

O'Hara sent his request for a pardon to Gov. George Pataki on Friday. By year's end, the governor will grant his last pardons and commuted sentences. While his case may not be as well known as that of the comedian Lenny Bruce, whom Pataki posthumously pardoned in 2003 of a 1964 obscenity conviction, O'Hara has gained notoriety for falling prey to the sheer vindictiveness of New York politics.

An attorney who worked his way through law school by driving a cab, O'Hara was convicted of felony voter fraud when he opposed Democratic Brooklyn Assemblyman James Brennan in a 1996 primary.

O'Hara had run a series of primary challenges against members of Brooklyn's fabled Democratic machine for years, becoming a thorn in the side of people like Brennan and District Attorney Charles Hynes, he said. In 1996, his opponents learned he had claimed his then-girlfriend's house, about 14 blocks from his own home, as his residence. He used her address when voting, which prosecutors successfully argued was voter fraud.

Discrepancies between where people actually sleep and where they register to vote are nothing new, and have long served as grist for political battles.

But the severity with which O'Hara was prosecuted came as a shock, not just to him but to others who have since taken up his cause. The last time a New Yorker was criminally prosecuted for voter fraud was in 1876, when Anthony cast a ballot before women had the right to vote.

O'Hara was convicted, lost his law license and his right to vote, was fined $20,000 and sentenced to 1,500 hours of community service.

He has since been the subject of numerous articles and supportive editorials in newspapers, including the Times Union and Harper's magazine. Alex Gibney, best known for "The Smartest Guys in the Room," which chronicled the Enron scandal, is doing a documentary about him.

"This puts a chill on people wanting to get involved," said Sandra Roper, a lawyer and political protege of O'Hara who prepared his pardon request. Roper heads a social advocacy group, the Justice Card Alliance, and believes the precedent this case sets bodes ill for immigrants, the poor and others who change addresses frequently and thus face being shut out of the voting process. The fact that O'Hara faced more than two decades in prison for a blip on his registration address could scare many people away from the polls, said Roper.

"When the country locks people up for voting, I thought it was very important to take a stand," said O'Hara, 45.

O'Hara developed an early interest in politics. He leafletted in 1972 for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. "I remember when he lost, I felt awful," O'Hara said.

In the 1990s, he joined a group of reformers seeking to open Brooklyn's notorious political cliques. That led to the discovery of his two addresses. Hynes re portedly expected O'Hara to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. But O'Hara wouldn't roll over. They went to trial.

After three tries - there was one reversal on appeal, followed by a mistrial - Hynes got his conviction. Since then, the state and federal appeals have dominated O'Hara's life. The end of the litigation line came in July, when a federal appeals court upheld the verdict.

O'Hara said he didn't realize a pardon was an option until a few months ago. "You can only apply for a pardon after you've exhausted all your remedies," he said.

It will be one of dozens of such pleas the governor gets each year. So far, the Division of Parole's Executive Clemency Bureau has gotten 239 requests for pardons or commutations of sentences, agency spokesman Scott Steinhardt said. There were 307 requests in 2005.

"They are reviewed all year. Recommendations are then provided to the governor, and the governor then makes the decision who is to receive clemency," Steinhardt said.

How does Hynes feel about the affair?

"It's up to the governor's judgment," he said.

O'Hara sees some vindication in the Brooklyn judgeship corruption scandal and still marvels at the effort the district attorney's office put into his prosecution. "They went through every check and credit card slip of the past 20 years," he said.

Brennan's office was closed Friday, and he could not be reached for comment.

O'Hara has retained a sense of humor about his odyssey, even though it left him broke, unemployed and relegated to picking up trash in a park across the street from his alma mater, Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn. That stemmed from the community service agreement he made to avoid prison.

"The whole thing is Irish," he quipped. "Me, Hynes and Brennan. This is like a bad bar fight, but with no bar."

Rick Karlin can be reached at 454-5758 or by e-mail at rkarlin@timesunion.com.

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