Dave Olson, Published September 05 2012
Suspicious signatures in voter fraud case flagged
Early on, the 19-year-old from Casselton says he became suspicious of the number of autographs other petition circulators were amassing.
“There was always this one person who got 80 (signatures) every day. That always struck me as odd because sometimes I couldn’t hit 50 a day,” said O’Brien, who went from collecting signatures to a job that required him to place petition data onto computerized spreadsheets.
He would send the information to Terra Strategies, an Iowa consulting company hired to conduct the petition campaign for an initiated measure aiming to set up a conservation fund in North Dakota.
Now, more than 17,000 signatures in that petition drive and about 8,000 signatures that were part of a petition drive for an initiated measure allowing marijuana use for medical purposes have been ruled invalid by state officials.
Consequently, neither measure will be on the November ballot.
Also, state officials say at least 10 people will face misdemeanor charges tied to fraudulent petitions, including eight current and one former member of the North Dakota State University Bison football team.
State officials said an investigation revealed some submitted petitions contained forged signatures. Officials suspect names were lifted from telephone directories and cellphone contact lists, while others were simply made up.
No charges yet
None of the suspects named by state officials on Tuesday had been charged as of Wednesday, though the North Dakota attorney general’s office said the list of suspects is expected to grow.
Initially, O’Brien’s name was on a list of people the attorney general’s office said would be facing charges, but the agency said Wednesday the Cass County state’s attorney’s office had decided O’Brien would not be charged.
O’Brien, a student at the North Dakota State College of Science, Wahpeton, said in a phone interview Wednesday that all of the petitions he submitted were legitimate.
He said the attorney general’s office questioned him about errors in some of the affidavits he submitted, but he said his mistake stemmed from a misunderstanding of what the document asked for.
O’Brien said he initially thought the form was asking him for information about where he had gathered signatures from. He said he later realized the form was asking him for his address.
“All of mine are completely legit,” O’Brien said of petitions he submitted. “I can’t cheat because I have the worst handwriting in the world.”
O’Brien said after he began his data entry job he started noticing that some petitions contained signatures that to him appeared suspicious because of their consistency.
“I would notice, you know, same style of handwriting. Same marks,” O’Brien said, adding that he was told to report any suspicious petitions to his supervisors and that is what he did.
“I assumed they would have taken some sort of action. I’m not sure as to what actions they would have taken,” he said.
According to O’Brien, Terra Strategies paid petition circulators about $11 an hour and informed workers that a certain number of signatures per eight-hour shift would be expected from them. He said he couldn’t remember the exact number but put it at around 70 or 80.
“If you were underperforming, I would guess you would more than likely be cut from the team,” O’Brien said, adding that it was his impression Terra Strategies was “trying to get as many legit names as possible,” while trying to weed out any cheaters.
Phone calls to Terra Strategies were not returned Tuesday or Wednesday.
O’Brien said he was paid about $9 an hour for his data entry work.
Terra Strategies was paid about $140,000 to handle the conservation petition drive and initiative organizers have said they are exploring whether it may be possible to have the money refunded in light of petition irregularities uncovered by state investigators.
The chairman of the organizing committee behind the medical marijuana measure said Terra Strategies wasn’t involved in that petition drive, though some of those named as suspects submitted rejected petitions for both of the initiatives, according to letters North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger sent organizers.
O’Brien said that while he was often suspicious of some of his fellow petition circulators, he had no first-hand knowledge of “cheating on the packets.”
“Did I ever witness it? No,” he said.
State officials said suspects in the case will face Class A misdemeanors, which carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.
None of the Bison players expected to face charges were suspended, as head coach Craig Bohl said he will let the legal process play out before deciding on any disciplinary action.
According to an experienced local defense attorney, from someone’s first court appearance on such a charge to the point a case is resolved by trial could take five to six months, though a guilty plea could shorten that timeline considerably.
O’Brien said when petition circulators received their training, company officials did not stress what shouldn’t be done when collecting signatures.
“I was never told we could be charged with Class A misdemeanors if we actually cheated,” he said.
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Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555