San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee today was endorsed by the man he replaced, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, but the endorsement was overshadowed by allegations that an independent group supporting Lee engaged in voter ballot fraud in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood last weekend.

At an event today announcing the endorsement, Lee denied any connection to the SF Neighbor Alliance, an independent expenditure committee supporting the interim mayor in the Nov. 8 election.

The group was captured on video last week allegedly helping elderly voters fill out ballots at a makeshift polling station on Stockton Street.

The campaign of state Sen. Leland Yee, one of Lee’s opponents in the Nov. 8 election, took the videos on two separate days last week, and allege that the group was using stencils that guided voters to mark Lee for mayor, then collected the marked ballots in plastic bags.

Yee said at a news conference today that the allegations were part of “a coordinated effort to steal an election.”

Yee and several other mayoral candidates on Sunday called on the California secretary of state to provide election monitors in San Francisco and for the U.S. attorney general and San Francisco District Attorney’s offices to investigate the claims.

District attorney’s office spokeswoman Stephanie Ong Stillman said today, “We’ve opened a preliminary investigation” into the incident after being contacted by the city’s Department of Elections.

The candidates have said that the group supporting Lee broke two elections laws regarding the soliciting of votes and the returning of ballots by a group supporting a candidate.

Department of Elections Director John Arntz said he saw the videos and “didn’t see anything that crossed any lines.”

Arntz said, “They came right up to the line, but from what I saw, they didn’t cross it.”

Lee, who was appointed interim mayor in January after Newsom was elected the state’s lieutenant governor, said today that he fully supported all investigations into the allegations and was in favor of federal or state monitors for the election.

“I agree with the other candidates, if there’s any fishy business about the way people are handling other people’s ballots … I want them to cease and desist,” he said.

Lee said although many people seen in the videos wore “Ed Lee for Mayor” T-shirts, they were not associated with his official campaign.

“This has nothing to do with my campaign, I have no knowledge of what they’re doing,” he said.

Lee said today’s endorsement by Newsom came after a couple of weeks of discussions between the former and current mayor.

Newsom said Lee has “moved from a caretaker to a leader.”

Lee initially pledged to serve as a caretaker mayor who would not run for election in November, but changed his mind and announced his candidacy in August.

Another candidate in the race, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, said today that the ballot fraud allegations are the latest reason to find the interim mayor untrustworthy, citing the reneging on the pledge not to run as well as a separate investigation into money laundering by donors to his campaign.

“We cannot trust Ed Lee to be our mayor for the next four years,” Adachi said.

Arntz, whose department will be counting the ballots to determine the next mayor, acknowledged that even if no criminal wrongdoing is found, the ballot fraud allegations could leave a stain on the election.

“Just the image of it, it’s not the most attractive image for an election to see something like that,” he said. “I don’t want people to question the process … and I think it’s a genesis for people to want to question the process.”

Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

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