Newly elected state rep denies voter fraud claims

Jesse White accuses incoming Rep. Jason Ortitay of voter fraud

December 10, 2014
Jason Ortitay

State Representative-elect Jason Ortitay said he will take office next month with a clear conscience he did not commit voter fraud when he temporarily moved into a Burgettstown woman’s home in October 2013 and registered to vote there.

“I’m not worried about it because I didn’t do anything wrong,” Ortitay said Wednesday.

Ortitay, who defeated Jesse White in November to represent the 46th state House district, said he lived at Pam Church’s house on Maple Avenue in Burgettstown for “a week to 10 days” last October and registered to vote there. He registered as a Republican Oct. 7, 2013 – the last day to do so and be eligible for that year’s election – because he expected to stay there until he found an apartment elsewhere.

He signed a lease a few days later at his current South Fayette apartment, but he voted in Burgettstown since he was still registered there, an action Washington County Elections Director Larry Spahr considers legal since it was too late to update his registration that year. Spahr said Ortitay did not commit fraud if he signed his voter registration form with the expectation of staying at the Burgettstown address for the foreseeable future.

However, White and his supporters are accusing Ortitay of never having lived at that Burgettstown address with Church and her husband, Harry.

A private complaint filed Oct. 24 directly with Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone questioning Ortitay’s registration address was passed on to the state attorney general’s office for review Oct. 27, more than a week before the general election. A blogger with ties to White showed up minutes after the complaint was filed in the district attorney’s office to inquire about it, Vittone said. Sources at the attorney general’s office said they are still reviewing the complaint and have not made a decision on whether to assign an investigator to the case.

Both Ortitay and Church deny any wrongdoing.

Church was outside sweeping her front porch Tuesday afternoon when she agreed to answer several questions from an Observer-Reporter staff writer about Ortitay’s stay with her. She said he “absolutely” lived in her two-bedroom house and kept various personal items and clothes there.

Both are members of Burgettstown Area Community Development Corp., she said, and Ortitay was helping Church coordinate the second annual pig roast fundraising event later that month. The lease at his apartment in Pittsburgh’s Fairywood neighborhood was about to expire, and he had not found a new residence in this area, so he needed a place to stay, she said.

“The plan was he was going to stay here until he found a place,” Church said. “I don’t know that I could say he was going to live here forever, but he was going to stay long enough until he found a (new) place. I think it’s something innocent that’s being turned into something else.”

But Robbin Seals, who lives across the street from Church’s home, said she never saw Ortitay coming or going from the residence. She also claims she never saw his car parked at the house in October 2013.

“Nope. Never saw him,” Seals said. “I know he wasn’t living in that house.”

However, Ortitay said he was rarely at the house except to sleep and was either traveling early in the morning for his online business, Jason’s Cheesecake Co., or driving back to his Pittsburgh apartment to clean it before the lease expired. He said he and his father moved his bed, a couch, a computer desk and mini-fridge from the apartment in early October into his parents’ Cross Creek Township home, and he then moved in with Church.

“I was just looking for a place to live,” Ortitay said. “I wasn’t even sure I was going to run (for office). Pam was being nice and let me come in there for a bit.”

However, White claimed in numerous postings on his Facebook page in the weeks since his Nov. 4 defeat Ortitay committed voter fraud. He doubts Ortitay ever lived at the Burgettstown residence, and claims that even if he did, he never considered it to be his permanent residence.

“I don’t think he lived there for a day,” White said. “His plan was going to be that he’ll take this address and no one else will know better.”

White admitted he immediately investigated Ortitay’s registration change in Burgettstown and mentioned it to former Robinson Township Supervisor Brian Coppola while they were at a Christmas party last December. White said he didn’t make an issue of it again until a few weeks before the November election when he was getting bombarded with negative ads from Ortitay’s campaign.

“It wasn’t something I was focusing on,” White said. “I had a million and one things going on, and it wasn’t at the top of my priorities.”

Coppola, who planned to challenge Ortitay in the Republican primary for the state House seat in May 2014, requested a hearing in Allegheny County Court questioning Ortitay’s residency status just before the election. Coppola said he received documents from a South Fayette resident, whom he refused to identify, about Ortitay’s apartment leases in Pittsburgh and South Fayette. However, Coppola dropped his challenge against Ortitay’s residency status the day before the hearing after he became uncomfortable with where the information came from and how it was produced. He later dropped out of the race.

“I kind of washed my hands of it,” Coppola said, adding he still has questions about Ortitay’s voter registration record. “I just didn’t want to get involved with stuff like that.”

A review of Ortitay’s voting record shows he registered in Allegheny County at a Coraopolis address Feb. 14, 2011, after previously being registered to vote at his family’s Cross Creek home. He then changed his registration Nov. 29, 2011, to 1514 Village Road in the Fairywood neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He remained there until changing his registration Oct. 7, 2013, to the 15 Maple Ave. address in Burgettstown.

Ortitay said he wasn’t sure at the time how long it might take him to find a new place to rent, but he was able to sign a lease a few days later at his current address in South Fayette. He voted in Burgettstown for the off-year election that November, which is permitted since he did not have time to register again after the deadline passed. Curiously, Ortitay said he was not asked for some form of identification tying him to the Maple Avenue address, as is required for first-time voters at a precinct. A utility bill, bank statement or firearms permit are acceptable proof, but Ortitay said he showed his driver’s license, even though that still had his previous address on it.

Spahr said precinct officials in Burgettstown erred by not asking for correct identification.

Ortitay forwarded his mail directly from the Fairywood apartment to South Fayette Oct. 11. He returned to the Fairywood apartment over the next few weeks to clean and remove clothing and other small items, he said.

“I was still going back and forth cleaning the apartment,” he said of the time before the lease expired. “It was a disaster, and I was trying to get my deposit back.”

He registered to vote at his new South Fayette apartment Jan. 6, about three months after moving there.

Church and Ortitay both said they haven’t been contacted by the attorney general’s office, although they would be willing to testify if required.

“It’s not an issue to me,” Ortitay said.

“I have nothing to hide,” Church added.

Even with the allegations levied by his former opponent, Ortitay wished White well.

“I only have one thing to say to him, and that is I wish him the best in all of his future endeavors,” Ortitay said. “I don’t hold any grudges against him, and I hope he finds peace.”

Mike Jones has been a news reporter since 2005, covering crime, state and municipal government, education and energy. In addition to working at the Observer-Reporter, he also has spent time at the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail and Patch.com. He holds a journalism degree from West Virginia University.

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