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nwlaborpress.org

August 1, 2008 Volume 109 Number 15

Sizemore operation faces new forgery allegations

By DON Mcintosh, Associate Editor

Staff at a labor-supported watchdog group found what they think is evidence of forgery on initiative petitions sponsored by anti-union activist Bill Sizemore — after less than 40 hours of staff time spent combing through petition sheets.

The group, Our Oregon, shared its early findings with Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury June 16. Then, after it appeared nothing was being done with the information, the group filed a formal complaint July 15 with the state Elections Division, which Bradbury oversees.

The Elections Division is certifying eight measures for the November ballot, despite indications that election law was violated by paid signature gatherers who worked on seven of the campaigns.

Those signature gatherers are employees of Democracy Direct, Inc., a for-profit company owned by Sizemore associate Tim Trickey. A 2005 complaint by Our Oregon resulted in fines for Trickey, Sizemore, and two Democracy Direct subcontractors for violating the voter-approved ban on the pay-by-the-signature bounty. Sizemore himself has a history of initiative abuses — a jury found two of his groups had engaged in a pattern of fraud and forgery during several 2000 ballot measure campaigns.

Democracy Direct ran the 2007-2008 paid signature-gathering operations for nine initiatives aimed at the November 2008 ballot. Five of the initiatives were sponsored by Sizemore and two by former state Republican Party chair Kevin Mannix. The other two initiatives, which didn’t make it to the ballot, were sponsored by Russ Walker, current vice chair of the Oregon Republican Party. [Walker also co-sponsored three of the Sizemore measures.]

The current forgery allegations stem from a two-day visit in June by two Our Oregon staff members to the Elections Division offices in Salem. Rachel Lebwohl and Maggie Weller looked for irregularities in a small sample of the initiative petition sheets. They tried to match up sheets for different measures that were circulated by the same paid petitioner on the same day. That wasn’t easy: A single ballot measure can easily require more than 15,000 signature sheets. But Our Oregon spokesperson Scott Moore, formerly of Bradbury’s office, said it didn’t take long to find rather obvious evidence to confirm their suspicions.

A very high proportion of pages had all the signers’ address and date information filled out in the same handwriting, and sometimes that handwriting was different than that of the circulators who’d signed below swearing they’d witnessed the signatures. On many sheets, it was clear that carbon paper had been used to copy addresses and dates from one signature sheet to others; the signatures were always in ink, but on some sheets, they were written on top of the carbon. Sometimes, the same individual’s name appeared on several measures, but with fundamentally different signatures.

Lebwohl and Weller made copies, and used voter registration databases to locate some of the people whose names appeared on the suspicious signature sheets. Moore said they called as many as 200 individuals and spoke with about 70. Though most didn’t remember whether they’d signed or not, and some were suspicious or uncooperative, seven said they were certain they hadn’t signed the petition on which their names appeared. And four of those agreed to go public.

Keizer resident Ellen Clay confirmed to the NW Labor Press that she was approached in Salem outside a Kohl’s store — and signed several petitions. Clay specifically declined to sign a petition eliminating seniority pay for teachers — there are several teachers in her family. But her name appears on a sheet for that initiative, and paid petitioner Joseph Yearby, who lists a Flint, Michigan, home address, signed below swearing he witnessed all the signatures. Clay wonders: Did Yearby trick her into signing a measure she said she opposes, or did he copy her signature from other sheets?

Rachel Ashmun of Northeast Portland says she only signs petitions that pertain to environmental causes. But her name and address appear on a measure to limit attorneys fees. Shown the sheet with her signature on it, she says she doesn’t recognize it as her own. Due to illness, her hand shakes, giving her signature a distinct appearance that the signature on the sheet doesn’t have. But someone named “Cairo” listing an address in Los Alamitos, California, signed at the bottom of the page swearing he/she witnessed the signature.

Frank Hood of Southeast Portland frequently rides the MAX to pick up his granddaughter, and says he remembers being approached on the train by a circulator, presumably Vernon Van. Van, who has a Long Beach, California, address, signed swearing he witnessed Hood’s signature on the teacher pay initiative. Hood told Our Oregon that although he signed several of the petitions, he disagrees with and did not sign the teacher pay initiative.

Marilyn Dale of Southwest Portland told the NW Labor Press she didn’t remember signing anything about teacher pay. Yet her name appears on Justin Schoenleber’s petition sheet for the initiative, dated Dec. 21. All the addresses on the page are in the same person’s handwriting. Dale said that though the signature resembles hers, at least three details prove it’s not her real signature. Dale said she may have signed another petition when she was approached outside the Beaverton library. Was it traced onto another sheet? Reached by the NW Labor Press, Schoenleber said he worked that library in November and December, but vigorously denied any wrongdoing. Schoenleber explained his method to the Labor Press. He would start with the most popular initiative, and ask the signer to print their name and write out their address next to their signature. Then he would ask them to sign other sheets, onto which he would copy the other information. [That practice was legal until January 2008, when a new law aimed at initiative abuse took effect.]

“Typically I’ll say, ‘there’s a couple more items that require your signature,’” Schoenleber said, “and the constituents may not even ask what they are signing.”

The Our Oregon complaint also included an affidavit from a lawyer in Bend who believes he witnessed a paid petitioner violating the new law. On June 20, Tim Williams saw a man and a woman outside the downtown Bend post office gathering signatures for a measure that would limit attorneys fees. He asked the woman her name, and she said “Angela White.” When he asked the man his name, it was the woman who answered — “Brian Schrier.” Williams said the two seemed nervous about the interaction.

The law now requires paid petitioners to register with the state, provide a photo, and swear they have no recent convictions for fraud or identity theft. Back at his office, Williams checked it out. The man with White looked nothing like the photo on file for Schrier. The next day, Williams saw White gathering signatures, this time with the real Schrier.

Altogether, the circulators named in the Our Oregon complaint gathered signatures for at least nine initiative petition campaigns.

“We believe that because the same circulators were collecting signatures for [other] initiative petitions …,” the group wrote in the complaint “you will upon investigation, discover the same violations on other sheets.”

“We want to hold all of these people criminally accountable for what they’ve done,” said Moore, the Our Oregon spokesperson.

On July 17, the Elections Division assigned compliance specialist Norma Buckno to investigate the complaint. A week later, none of the named individuals interviewed by the NW Labor Press had been called.

If the results of the Our Oregon probe prove to be examples of forgery, the practice may well have made the difference in getting several measures on the ballot this year. When county elections clerks performed the required validity check of signatures, they found over a third were invalid. Three of Sizemore’s five measures qualified for the ballot by fewer than a thousand signatures. If even 1 percent of the signatures on those petitions were forgeries, that would be enough to have made the difference in getting them on the ballot.

(Editor’s Note: Look to the Aug. 15 issue of the Northwest Labor Press for more details about the initiatives that make it to the ballot. Unions are gearing up to fight the measures, and are joining with other constituencies targeted by the measures to form a group, Defend Oregon, that will wage a unified campaign against them.)