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Fabricated tale claims ballot fraud by Philadelphia mob boss

November 19, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: The campaign for President-elect Joe Biden paid Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, who once controlled a Philadelphia organized crime family, to fill out 300,000 blank ballots.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. There is no evidence this scheme happened. Merlino’s attorney denied the story and pointed out his client is not allowed to leave Florida where he is currently under supervised release. Election experts say not only would the alleged plot be impossible to pull off without it being detected, the claim is inconsistent with actual election data. 

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THE FACTS: False claims about irregularities and fraud in the Nov. 3 U.S. election continue to spread online.

A recent claim on social media alleges the Biden campaign hired Joseph “Skinny Joe” Merlino, who once was a mob boss in Philadelphia, to mark 300,000 blank ballots for Biden and deliver them to the Philadelphia Convention Center to be counted. 

“Reports are coming in that the MOB in PA was HIRED by the Biden team to crate fake ballots by the thousands!” reads the caption of video shared on Facebook with over 180,000 views.

The claim originated with a Nov. 14 article published by the Buffalo Chronicle, which attributes the information to sources who remained anonymous. The online site did not return a request for comment. It has a history of publishing false stories based on unsubstantiated rumors, according to an analysis by NewsGuard, a company that rates the trustworthiness of news sites in the U.S. and Europe.  

Jordan Sekulow, a member of President Donald Trump’s legal team, tweeted the article and wrote, “Follow all leads.”

The Buffalo Chronicle story claims Merlino and his associates filled out the ballots with Sharpie markers and were paid $3 million in cash by political operatives. It goes on to suggest, without providing evidence, that “Democratic Party operatives working inside Philadelphia’s election office” gave Merlino “crates of raw ballots” which he took to two houses in South Philadelphia.   

According to a photo caption that appears in the article, after Merlino and others filled in the ballots, he “transported them in nondescript cardboard boxes to a backroom at the Philadelphia Convention Center. From there, the ballots were scanned into ballot boxes and were then co-located with actual election ballots being prepared for processing.”

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There is no evidence any of this happened. 

John Meringolo, Merlino’s attorney, called the claims “fiction.” The New York lawyer told The Associated Press “we categorically deny everything,” and added that the account can be debunked by the fact that his client was not in Philadelphia and is not allowed to leave Florida. Merlino is under supervised release in Florida after leaving federal prison.

Merlino pleaded guilty to a gambling charge in 2018 after a jury deadlocked in a criminal case that accused him of more extensive racketeering and fraud charges. He was originally sentenced to 24 months in prison, and one year of supervised release in the Southern District of Florida, according to court records.

“There is no way he is leaving the state of Florida,” Meringolo said. “They are saying the guy is in Philadelphia and he is not allowed to be.”

Jane Roh, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office wrote in an email to the AP, “Nothing fitting the description of what is being alleged here has been reported to the District Attorney’s Office Election Task Force for criminal investigation.” 

Roh noted that the Buffalo Chronicle “has an established history of publishing disinformation” and the article in question “appears to be false.” 

Election experts told the AP a voter fraud scheme like the one alleged in the article would be impossible to pull off.

Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that if this claim had actually happened, there would be 300,000 more ballots cast and counted than voters who checked in to vote or cast an absentee ballot. “That’s obviously false and would be easy to catch during the canvass,” Weil said.

The article claimed that Merlino and others marked ballots with Sharpie markers. But Weil pointed out that voters who show up to vote in-person in Philadelphia use a ballot marking device to mark their paper ballots.

“300,000 ballots made in two private homes and then infiltrated into the system would not look like these,” Weil said. 

If the alleged fraud scheme involved fabricating mailed ballots, Weil said the scheme would also require “the outer envelope, internal privacy sleeve, and a voter’s signature.”

Even if it were possible to somehow fabricate ballots — which experts say it is not — University of Pennsylvania political scientist Marc Meredith told the AP, “there are a lot of safeguards” that would prevent such a fraud scheme from going unnoticed by him and others who analyze election data.

 “A scheme like you describe would have to leave a paper trail that is clearly not present in the data,” Meredith said. 

Stephen Pettigrew, director of data sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior analyst for the NBC News Decision Desk, said county level election data also refute the alleged plot. 

“If this conspiracy theory were true, then we should see anomalous vote count results in Philadelphia County, compared to the rest of the state,” Pettigrew wrote in an email. “And the anomalies should be heavily favorable for President-elect Biden. In fact, there are no anomalies, and Philadelphia County is arguably one of President Trump’s (not Biden’s) best performances in any county in the country.”

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536