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O'Connor fight dealt harsh blow

| Saturday, May 26, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Democratic mayoral runner-up Bob O'Connor suffered a setback Friday when Commonwealth Court scheduled a hearing on his appeals for June 7 - three days after the deadline to challenge the primary election.

'It's not a particularly favorable message,' said attorney E.J. Strassburger, who represents O'Connor with Harrisburg attorney Christopher Lucas. 'I guess these battles are held in abeyance until then.'

Two Allegheny County judges this week rejected O'Connor's petitions to force the elections department to expand his staff's access to city voting records. O'Connor is mulling over whether to seek a recount of the May 15 balloting, which he lost to Mayor Tom Murphy by 699 votes out of more than 66,000 cast.

O'Connor appealed the rejection of a petition seeking greater access to elections records, and the rejection of a petition to throw out the county's preliminary certification of the primary election results.

The election becomes final at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday unless O'Connor challenges the results. After that, his only remaining option will be to challenge the entire election. The decision needs to be made by June 4.

Clifford Levine, who is representing Murphy, repeated his call yesterday for O'Connor to concede the election.

'We're very confident we'll win the appeal,' Levine said. 'I think they're grasping at straws. They haven't alleged any fraud and a recount is not going to change anything.'

O'Connor could not be reached. In a statement, O'Connor aide Connie Sukernek said the campaign would proceed with a review of the elections records 'because it is the right thing to do.'

'If a comprehensive review of the voters' registration records of the city of Pittsburgh fails to reveal any significant discrepancies, this contest will be over,' Sukernek said.

O'Connor pushed forward with his election fight after gaining 270 votes last week in a routine recanvassing by the elections department. That narrowed Murphy's margin of victory by nearly a third from election night.

A recanvassing looks for arithmetic and transcription errors. A recount, which has not been requested, would entail opening voting machines and scrutinizing ballots in particular precincts.

O'Connor must prove widespread fraud or negligence on election day to have the election overturned.

O'Connor's attorneys have argued their client's efforts to review records have been hampered as the elections department works to certify results from the rest of the county. Yesterday, the department expanded the number of viewers from both the Murphy and O'Connor campaigns from two to nine.

'The process continues. We'll continue to review the records as fast as we can,' Strassburger said. 'We'll put those results into the consideration mill and decide what options we have.'

Dave Copeland can be reached at dcopeland@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7922.

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