Jo-Jo Fortes has had a New Bedford political career that, to say the least, has experienced its ups and downs.

And in a latest twist to that career, the New Bedford Election Commission has thrown Fortes off the voter rolls, saying he does not live at the 334 Pleasant St. address where he is registered and from which he has run twice for Ward 4 councilor. In fact, commissioners said they are convinced Fortes has never lived at the address.

Former Councilor Fortes. Image via Twitter

It is New Bedford’s own little case of voter fraud, and it has evidently gone on for years.

Fortes’ own nephew by marriage, Mike Williams, brought the evidence against Fortes — legal and bank documents, voter registration and campaign documents, municipal bills, attestations from neighbors — before the commission last week, and the four members (two Democrats and two Republicans) voted unanimously to remove Fortes from the voter list.

Members agreed with Williams that Fortes had deceived the city for the last seven elections, voting from a residence he did not live at. What’s more, they agreed that Fortes had twice fraudulently run for a Ward 4 City Council seat from the bogus voting address.

They further said that Fortes cannot run for a Ward 4 seat from the Pleasant Street address, accepting evidence from a probate court lawsuit filing that pits Mike Williams and his wife (who is Fortes’ niece) against Fortes. According to evidence presented to the commission by Williams, Fortes himself identified his address as 176 Allen St. in Ward 5 in that lawsuit. 

In 2018, Fortes had also misrepresented himself as living at the Pleasant Street address when he actually lived at 18 Jenkins St. in Ward 6, according to Registry of Motor Vehicles evidence that Williams presented to the commission.

It didn’t take long for the commission to decide — with several members referring to the overwhelming credibility of the Williams’ exhibits — that Fortes does not live on Pleasant Street, not now or in the past.

“I just think the evidence is here that Mr. Fortes never lived there,” said member Donald Gaudette. “There is so much information out there.”

“The fact that he didn’t attend the hearing today is pretty damning to me as well,” said member Henry Bousquet. “If you have something to defend, you’ll defend it.”

Fortes did not return two phone calls from The New Bedford Light; Election Commission Chair Manuel DeBrito said he also did not respond to multiple attempts by police to summons him to the July 29 meeting, both at the Pleasant Street and the Allen Street addresses. 

A tenant in the Fortes owned-building in Ward 5 told the police officer delivering the summons that the former councilor did, in fact, live there, according to DeBrito.

Included in the evidence that the commissioners said they found convincing were:

  • Fortes had declared a “homestead” at the 176 Allen St. address in Ward 5. A homestead is a legal declaration of one’s domicile designed to protect a residence against legal claims on it.
  • Several of the neighbors of 334 Pleasant St. in Ward 4, including two that live immediately across the street, signed a statement, attesting that Fortes has never lived there. One of those signing was Lee Charlton, the well-known former head of the NAACP. 
The Election Commission votes unanimously to disqualify Fortes from voting from 334 Pleasant St., determining it was a fraudulent address. Clockwise from top left: Donald Gaudette, Manuel DeBrito, Assistant City Solicitor Liz Treadup Pio, Henry Bousquet, Michael Williams (the complainant), and Heather Heffernan.

Jo-Jo Fortes is no stranger to controversy.

He served four terms on the City Council, from 1996 to 1999 and then from 2002 to 2005, and has spent much of the past 15 years trying to win a fifth term. 

Controversy has seemed to follow Fortes during his career: In 2010, he stood trial and was acquitted on a charge he tried to extort a convenience store owner, including by impersonating a police officer. In 2003, he refused to give police a statement about a man he had said he saw waving a gun on Acushnet Avenue in the neighborhood just south of downtown. In 1996, he was criticized for working as a longshoreman at the same time he was being paid worker’s compensation from the Bristol County House of Correction. In 1987, after he injured his leg working at the Ash Street Jail during a fight with an inmate, Fortes received worker’s comp payments for nine years until 1996, when he was fired for refusing to report to a light-duty job; he subsequently charged Sheriff Thomas Hodgson with discrimination for firing him related to that case.

Fortes, an affable councilor who is known for his constituent services, has beaten back many of the charges against him but has not been successful in returning to the City Council since the 2005 election, having lost in succession to Viola Pina, Bruce Duarte Jr., Dana Rebeiro and current Councilor Derek Baptiste.

Williams told the commission he was sorry to have to bring the matter of Jo-Jo’s voting address to them but “there is a bunch of fraudulent activity going on,” in what seemed like a reference to the probate case between him and his wife and Fortes. Probate court is where wills are adjudicated.

Williams insisted the two matters are unrelated but said something has happened since his late father-in-law, Antone “Tonka Toi” Fortes, died in February. Antone Fortes was the father of Williams’ wife Niki and also was Jo-Jo’s brother. Antone Fortes was the owner of 334 Pleasant St. and lived on the second floor. Mike Williams said he and his wife have lived on the first floor of the two-family home for the past 16 years.  

“Some of his (Jo-Jo’s) behavior after my father-in-law died was very deceptive, shocking,” Mike Williams told the commission. “Basically, it was really, really out of character for what I called Uncle Joe.”

Jo-Jo had been like an uncle to him, and he had always told his kids to vote for him, even encouraging his son to come back from Babson College in Boston to do it, he said. 

Though he said he and his wife can’t get back her father, their “most prized possession,” Williams said Fortes’ deceptive behavior bothered him so much he started to investigate. He then discovered that Jo-Jo had been listing 334 Pleasant St. as his voting address for years. He said he found Fortes had also given the false address to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, which keeps track of candidate fundraising and spending.

“I kept finding signature after signature with his documents to run for office,” he said.

Williams said he is also concerned that Fortes is trying to obtain a salary at the expense of taxpayers and raised the cost of city-funded recounts when Fortes had lost his campaigns by margins that were not particularly close. That money could have been used for city services, he said.

“I know how much it costs to run some of these programs,” he said.

Buddy Andrade, an activist who is as close to an on-the-ground guy as you’ll find in the Pleasant Street neighborhood in question, said he is saddened by the situation. He said it’s no secret that Fortes does not live in the ward, or on Pleasant Street, but that “people make an issue out of nothing.” Fortes will not run again anyway, as he’s unlikely to win with the current incumbent, Derek Baptiste, being backed by the powers that be, he said. 

Andrade described Fortes as the kind of councilor who would have done a good job recently calling out the hypocrisy of a spate of elected officials — including Mayor Jon Mitchell and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey — who on July 16 announced Vineyard Wind’s agreement to provide 500 jobs to the Southeastern Massachusetts Building Trades Council. Andrade had brought 10 local youths to that press conference to protest that there are no guarantees for local minority jobs in the deal. 

The person that he feels sorry for, Andrade said, is Nicole Fortes-Williams, who has lost her father even as she raised her children at 334 Pleasant St. and done all the right things to make them successes.

“It’s a sad situation because that kid needs to have the love of her entire family,” he said.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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