Suspicious postal votes taken to an election count in a plastic suit-carrying bag obtained from a gentlemen's outfitters were allowed to be counted following the intervention of former Birmingham City Council leader Sir Albert Bore, it was claimed yesterday.
An election court, which is considering allegations of ballot-rigging in the Aston ward at last year's local authority elections, was told that council chief legal officer Mirza Ahmad changed his mind and accepted the votes as valid after talking to Sir Albert.
The accusation was levelled by Abdul Aziz, a losing Liberal Democrat candidate in Aston.
Mr Aziz said he attended the election count at the National Indoor Arena on June 11 and was surprised to see a plastic bag from the Nickelby's clothing store packed with ballot papers on the floor in the counting area.
Some of the ballot slips were loose and not contained in envelopes. There was also a bundle of European election votes on the top of the bag secured by an elastic band.
Liberal Democrat supporters wanted the bag and its contents, said to amount to 500 to 600 votes, to be investigated and believed they were told by Mr Ahmad that would happen.
Sir Albert, Aston Labour candidate Muhammad Afzal, elections officer John Owen and Mirza Ahmad had a "one-sided" conversation and then permission was given to count the votes in the bag, Mr Aziz claimed.
Mr Aziz, who told the court he had no faith in the electoral system, said he believed Sir Albert had been intent on extending Labour's 20-year period in control of the council.
"They didn't want to give in easily," he added.
Asked by counsel for the returning officer whether he was suggesting that Sir Albert or Mr Afzal improperly influenced the chief legal officer, Mr Aziz replied: "I am saying it is possible. I am only saying what I saw."
Philip Coppel, for the returning officer, said Mr Aziz's allegations were very serious and entirely untrue.
"You have just made it up," he suggested to Mr Aziz.
Further evidence about the Nickelby's bag was given by Naheem Saeed, also a losing Liberal Democrat candidate in Aston.
Many of the ballot papers in the bag were folded in the same way and all made out in favour of the Labour candidates, he said. He agreed that he was suggesting Sir Albert influenced Mr Ahmad in relation to the decision to accept the postal votes.
The court heard claims there was no attempt by the returning officer and her staff to check the authenticity of votes in the bag.
Richard Mawrey QC, a deputy High Court judge sitting as election commissioner, said: "The essence of the allegation is this: here was a suspicious bag of material and the proper course would have been either to reject it out of hand or to have postponed including it in the ballot so that its provenance could be properly investigated.
"Whether the votes were valid or invalid we will never know because the corner was cut."
The more serious allegation was the failure to conduct a proper inquiry into the bag and its contents, the judge said. The bag continued to give him a problem, Mr Mawrey added.
Mr Coppel suggested Mr Aziz was disappointed because he lost the election. The disappointment had overshadowed his recollection of events.
The judge intervened: "Mr Aziz would say it is worse still to lose because the other side cheated. Whether he is right or wrong, that is his view of the matter."
The court heard last week that the volume of postal ballots cast in Birmingham during the 2004 elections, and the arrival of many of them at the elections office only hours before the final deadline, meant that some had to be transported to the count in carrier bags.
There was nothing wrong or sinister about it, Mr Coppel insisted. They were delivered to the returning officer before the close of the poll and she had no alternative but to treat them as valid.
The case continues.