BISMARCK, N.D. - Eleven paid petition circulators have been charged with facilitating election fraud and filing false statements in gathering signatures for two proposed November ballot measures.
Secretary of State Al Jaeger announced Tuesday morning that the fraudulent signatures have disqualified the proposed state conservation fund measure and medical marijuana initiatives from the ballot.
Jaeger said as signatures were reviewed by staff it became apparent that petition circulators were engaged in some potentially fraudulent practices. Jaeger reported the matter to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem a couple of weeks ago and an investigation was launched.
“My staff and I take that responsibility very seriously,” Jaeger said.
Stenehjem said 11 people were charged following questioning by investigators from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation in recent weeks. The 11 are each facing charges of facilitation of voter fraud or filing false statements. The charge is a Class A misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year’s imprisonment, $2,000 in fines or both.
Eight of the 11 facing charges are current North Dakota State University football players. Four of them are starters: running back Samuel Ojuri, defensive backs Marcus Williams and Brendin Pierre, and offensive lineman Josh Colville. Backup defensive backs Bryan Shepherd and Aireal Boyd, reserve middle linebacker Antonio Rodgers and Demitrius Gray, a freshman wide receiver, also face charges. Gray is a redshirt and does not travel with the team. Players were paid $9 an hour to collect signatures for the two initiatives.
NDSU Bison coach Craig Bohl said the players will still be eligible to play in Saturday’s game against Colorado State. Any disciplinary action against the players would occur after legal proceedings have ended, he said.
Jeff Schwartz, director of athletic media relations at NDSU, said there was no further comment at this time beyond Tuesday’s press conference.
The other three charged are Josh Gatlin, Jennifer Krahn and Lane O’Brien.
“Petition fraud is an affront to the election process and to all citizens, particularly to those who legitimately signed the petitions hoping to have these measures placed on the ballot,” Stenehjem said.
Sponsoring committee members for the state conservation measure turned in 37,785 signatures on Aug. 6. A total of at least 17,034 signatures have been rejected, dropping the number of valid signatures to 18,966. That is 7,938 short of the 26,904 needed for the proposed constitutional initiative to appear on the ballot.
With the medical marijuana initiative, a total of 7,559 signatures were rejected. The sponsoring committee for the medical marijuana initiative had turned in 20,092 signatures. The rejected signatures dropped the total signatures to 12,533, or 919 short of the 13,452 needed for the statutory initiative to appear on the ballot.
Supporters for both measures paid outside firms to collect signatures. The North Dakotans for Clean Water, Lands and Outdoor Heritage group paid Terra Strategies, a Des Moines, Iowa, consulting firm, more than $145,000 to collect signatures. Messages left with Terra Strategies on Tuesday weren’t returned.
Proponents of the medical marijuana measure paid a firm about $45,000.
Jaeger said there were approximately a dozen bogus names located among the medical marijuana signatures. He said some of the bogus names were creative, including the likes of Jesse James, characters from the animated television program “Family Guy” and Hillary Rodham, a reference to the U.S. secretary of state.
Jaeger said the investigation revealed that several of the paid petition circulators had forged signatures by a variety of methods, including taking names from phone books, cellphone contact lists and making up false names.
Jaeger said all petition circulators are required to sign an affidavit swearing that all signatures turned in are legitimate and they witness to each signature being attained.
It’s been nearly 20 years since a measure in North Dakota has been disqualified from the ballot following voter fraud charges against petition circulators. Eight people were charged in 1994 for voter fraud while circulating petitions for a proposed measure that would have imposed term limits on legislators.
Six people were charged with voter fraud in 2006 in a child custody and support measure and two people were charged in 2008 with voter fraud involving a proposed income tax measure. In the 2006 and 2008 cases, the measures still had enough valid signatures to remain on the ballot.
Stephen Adair, sponsoring committee chairman for North Dakotans for Clean Water, Lands and Outdoor Heritage, issued a statement on the disqualification of the proposed conservation measure. Adair is also director of the Bismarck regional office of national conservation group Ducks Unlimited.
Adair said he was disappointed by what had transpired among a number of the paid petition circulators. He said he felt “sick to my stomach” when informed over the holiday weekend by the attorney general’s office of the charges and ballot disqualification.
“The North Dakotans who signed our petitions in good faith, our coalition partners and hundreds of volunteers have borne a heavy cost of this fraud,” Adair said.
Adair said North Dakotans for Clean Water, Lands and Outdoor Heritage is cooperating fully with state officials and BCI. He said nearly $500,000 in advertising had been reserved for this fall by the group. Adair said it will now likely seek reimbursement. Adair said the group may also take legal action against the firm it hired, to recoup costs from the failed petition effort.
North Dakota Chamber of Commerce President Andy Peterson said it was gratifying to see that the conservation measure won’t be on the November ballot. Peterson is also a spokesman for the People First of North Dakota Coalition, which opposed the measure.
“I think at the end of the day, North Dakotans would have looked at the measure and rejected it out of hand,” Peterson said.
Peterson said he was surprised when he learned of the voter fraud charges in the petition-gathering process. However, he called the failure of the measure “good in the long run.” He said if the proponents of the measure come to the table with officials and the Legislature, a better alternative for strengthening conservation may come of it. Peterson said when an initiative is proposed, whether good or bad, it’s proper to have active discussion take place.
“I think this will show that the people of North Dakota do care about conservation,” Peterson said.
With the two measures being disqualified from the ballot, five other measures remain. Three are on the ballot through petitions and two are on the ballot through action of the state Legislature.
The three measures on the ballot by petition are a statewide public smoking ban, increased penalties for animal cruelty and a constitutional guarantee of farmers’ and ranchers’ right to farm using modern methods. The two measures by legislative action are a repeal of the annual poll tax and a requirement for members of the executive branch of government to take an oath of office.