ATLANTIC CITY — Voice recorder in his pocket, Rodney Cotton, 51, got out of the private detectives' car and headed for the Gilliam for Mayor headquarters on Atlantic Avenue.
As the two retired state troopers watched from a distance Saturday, Cotton went inside, then emerged and got into a white van driven by Craig Callaway, a city Democratic Party activist known for quarterbacking exhaustive vote-by-mail operations. The van left for Mays Landing, where the old Atlantic County courthouse was open for special Saturday hours to process ballots for Tuesday's election.
Cotton would later report to the detectives that Callaway paid him $30 to obtain and sign for a messenger ballot for an Atlantic City man whom he said he did not know, and that rather than delivering that ballot to the man — as required by law — he handed it directly to Callaway, who put it in his pocket.
"I felt like a greaseball," Cotton said in the car with the detectives, Lou DiJoseph and Tim Witkoski, who had been hired by the campaign of Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, a Republican, to investigate what the campaign alleges is a pattern of brazen and organized ballot fraud by Democrats in Atlantic City centering on vote-by-mail and messenger ballots.
"You can feel you're doing something wrong," Cotton said. "You can feel it, like, wow."
Now, the Guardian campaign, through election-law lawyer Jack Carbone, is seeking to have the ballots set aside before the election and not counted until they can be investigated by either the Board of Elections or law enforcement.
In addition to Cotton's recording, campaign officials say they have interviewed two other voters who say they were approached in recent weeks by someone in a white van and offered $30 to go to Mays Landing and cast votes for Gilliam and other Democrats.
New Jersey law allows a voter to designate a messenger to retrieve a mail-in ballot, but requires that the ballot be delivered directly to the voter. The ballot must be filled out and signed by the voter. It is not illegal to pay the messenger, who is limited to obtaining ballots for three voters.
The county has so far issued 2,589 vote-by-mail ballots to Atlantic City voters, including 959 through a messenger.
Callaway, in an interview Tuesday, said he had done nothing illegal and accused the Guardian campaign of trying to suppress minority votes. He said his efforts were aimed at getting ballots to voters who might not otherwise cast votes. (He also noted that he supported Guardian in 2013, when Guardian upset Mayor Lorenzo Langford.)
"Go get your own vote and stop crying and trying to disenfranchise people," Callaway said. "Tell Don Guardian and the rest of his crew, stop trying to disenfranchise people."
"I'm not even going to entertain those allegations," he added. "They are whining hypocrites. When votes are for them, everything is fine. When votes are not for them, there's all kinds of allegations. Leave the voters alone."
The detectives allowed a reporter to accompany them Saturday as they gave Cotton the voice recorder, dropped him off at Gilliam headquarters in Atlantic City, and trailed him to Mays Landing and back. Cotton said he was upset about all the talk of ballot fraud, especially among the city's homeless, and agreed to help them.
Guardian is facing a tight race with Democrat Frank Gilliam, a city councilman. Two others, independent Joseph Polillo and Green Party candidate Henry Green, are also candidates.
Reached Tuesday afternoon by phone, Gilliam said the action by the Guardian campaign "shows me their desperation" and said Callaway does not work for him, "nor do we accept ballots."
"There is no secrecy as to our modus operandi as a campaign," he said. "I'm very proud of my campaign team. We're not running a messenger ballot operation out of my campaign headquarters."
He said that the issue of messenger ballots had repeatedly been raised and that the Board of Elections had the responsibility of checking for improprieties.
"This is campaign season," he said. "There are going to be folks that say all kinds of things."
Mike Sommers, deputy clerk in charge of elections, said the office compares signatures on vote-by-mail applications with the voter's signature on file. He said that he had not observed any messenger ballots being handled improperly but that if the delivery was not done properly, it should be investigated.
It could not yet be determined if the ballot handled by Cotton had found its way to the voter.
Cotton said he was surprised the transaction took place inside the old courthouse, the headquarters of the county Department of Elections. "Craig paid me. He handed me the money in there, inside the courthouse," he said.
The white vans, driven either by Callaway or his brother, David, are a familiar sight in Atlantic City and parked outside the old courthouse, and members of the Callaway family are controversial protagonists of many Atlantic City election sagas.
Craig Callaway, a former City Council president who served 42 months in prison on a bribery charge, attended Gilliam's victory party on primary day. Gilliam beat his opponent, Council President Marty Small Sr., on the strength of votes by mail.
The Guardian campaign has also interviewed two voters who complained after being offered $30 to vote, including one who said she was offered $30 to vote "the Democratic line." Another man interviewed described turning over three messenger ballots.
Atlantic County elections were recently under scrutiny after a Republican councilman, Jesse Kurtz, said he was given a vote-by-mail ballot already filled out for Gilliam. The state Attorney General's Office said it received the complaint but declined further comment. The office did not return a message asking for comment Tuesday.
Cotton said his understanding of what he was paid for was, "Get someone's that's missing in action, get their ballot, and hand it to Craig."
As for his own ballot, he said he was told how to complete it, which, because he is registered from a Pleasantville address, did not include the Atlantic City races. A woman with Callaway, he said, called out candidates' names and pointed where to vote.
Callaway was dismissive of the undercover operation as described to him by a reporter. "Instead of them calling you and trying to set somebody up, go get your own votes," he said.
He said scrutiny was most often directed at minority voters. "I'll answer your question when all voters are questioned about how and who they voted for," he said.
Cotton, a Guardian supporter, said he tried to negotiate for more than $30, but Callaway told him, "Actually, you're supposed to come three times before you even get the money, $10 a trip. ' "
As the van drove off from the courthouse, the orange-sweater-clad Callaway at the wheel, the recorder still at work in Cotton's pocket, the passengers in the van — according to a written summary of the audio — cried out, "Thank you, Craig!"