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'08 primary forgery brings probe
10/8/2011 10:53:00 PM
By RYAN NEES
Howey Politics Indiana
ERIN BLASKO and KEVIN ALLEN
South Bend Tribune
SOUTH BEND — The signatures of dozens, if not hundreds, of northern Indiana residents were faked on petitions used to place presidential candidates on the state primary ballot in 2008, The Tribune and Howey Politics Indiana have revealed in an investigation.
Several pages from petitions used to qualify Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the state’s Democratic primary contain names and signatures that appear to have been copied by hand from a petition for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Schellinger. The petitions were filed with the Indiana Election Division after the St. Joseph County Voter Registration Office verified individuals’ information on the documents.
St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak’s name appears twice on the Clinton petitions. After The Tribune faxed one of the signatures to him, Dvorak identified that signature as his own and confirmed that he had signed the petition. Dvorak did not respond after a copy of the second signature on the same petition was faxed to him by The Tribune.
Spokeswoman Lora Bentley later said the prosecutor could no longer comment on the matter because it was now under investigation.
Falsifying a ballot petition is a Class D felony in Indiana. According to Dale Simmons, co-legal counsel for the Elections Division, the statute of limitations for Class D felonies is five years.
The Tribune has talked with more than 30 people besides Dvorak whose names are on both the Clinton and Schellinger petitions. All but one of them have confirmed their purported signatures on the Clinton petition are not genuine.
Erich Speckin, a forensic document analyst, examined the petitions at the request of The Tribune and Howey Politics.
He said there is clear evidence, based on the consistency of the handwriting, that about 20 pages in the Obama petition were filled in by the same person, and another person apparently filled in six or seven pages. He said it’s possible another two people filled in several more pages. Each page in the petition contains up to 10 signatures.
“It’s obvious. It’s just terribly obvious,” Speckin said, pointing to one of the writer’s idiosyncrasies repeated throughout the petition’s pages.
The full extent of the fakery, which appears to be limited to the state’s 2nd Congressional District and specifically St. Joseph County, is not yet known. The situation, however, calls into question whether either Clinton or Obama, both of whom were U.S. senators at the time, should have been on the Indiana primary ballot.
Candidates for president, senator and governor must submit ballot petitions signed by at least 500 registered voters in each of Indiana’s nine congressional districts to quality for the statewide ballot.
Clinton edged Obama by about 2 percentage points in the Indiana primary but lost the overall Democratic nomination. Obama, of course, went on to be elected president, defeating Republican Sen. John McCain in the general election.
County voter registration offices are responsible for verifying that those who sign the petitions are registered voters in that county. Staff in the offices check to make sure each signer’s name, birth date and home address match the information on his or her voter registration card.
The chairs of the two major parties, Democrat and Republican, each appoint one member to serve on the two-member voter registration board in the county. They also appoint a first deputy and three staff members each to work in the voter registration office.
In St. Joseph County, certified petitions are stamped, initialed and signed by both members of the board - Republican Linda Silcott and Democrat Pam Brunette, in the case of the Obama and Clinton petitions - and then returned to the person who submitted the petition.
That person is then responsible for delivering the petition to the state Election Division by noon on the final day candidates can declare they’re running for office. In 2008, that deadline was Feb. 18.
The front of the Clinton and Obama petitions bear a stamp and the initials “pb” for Brunette, whose signature appears on the back of the petitions beside Silcott’s.
Brunette said she had not heard any complaints about invalid signatures on the 2008 presidential petitions. She said the office’s employees typically wouldn’t know if a signature had been forged unless someone else calls attention to it.
“We’re not handwriting analysts,” she told Howey Politics, “so our job is basically making sure that the papers are complete.”
Brunette added that a huge volume of petition pages circulate through voter registration in advance of the candidate filing deadline.
Identifying the person or persons responsible for petition irregularities is not a simple task. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of volunteers participated in the Clinton and Obama petition drives in the 2nd District, both independently and as part of candidates’ official campaigns.
Receipts that would have included the names of people who submitted the petitions no longer exist. Silcott said voter registration is required to keep those records for only two years. But Speckin says further analysis could likely reveal who faked the signatures.
The people contacted by The Tribune who denied signing the Clinton petition included ordinary citizens but also county council member Mike Hamann, former county sheriff and auditor Joe Nagy, county attorney Pete Agostino and two South Bend police officers.
Capt. Phil Trent, the spokesman for the city’s police department, looked at pages from the Clinton and Schellinger petitions where his name appears. He confirmed that his signature was valid on the Schellinger petition, but said he did not sign the Clinton petition. What’s more, Trent added, whoever signed the document in his name wrote his birth date incorrectly.
Some reacted with shock and confusion when told their names and signatures were on petitions for the presidential candidates.
South Bend resident Robert Hurst told Howey Politics that he wouldn’t have signed a Clinton or Obama petition, because, “I liked both of them, and I didn’t decide until Election Day.”
Several signatures, including those of county Democrat Party Chairman Owen “Butch” Morgan, appear multiple times on the Clinton and Obama petitions.
Morgan initially did not respond to several requests via phone and in person to comment on his signature and on the petition process for this story. His attorney, Shaw Friedman, later responded in an e-mail that questions should be directed to him.
The Democratic chairman’s name and signature appear three times on the Clinton petition - as “Owen D. Morgan,” “Owen B. Morgan” and just “Owen Morgan.” One of the signatures is marked “duplicate” on the page, but the other two appear to have been accepted by voter registration.
In addition to being chairman of the county Democratic Party, Morgan also is chair of the 2nd District for the Indiana Democratic Party.
Howey Politics also identified similar groupings of names on the Clinton, Obama and Schellinger petitions. In most cases, the corresponding signatures do not appear to match.
One person’s last name became “Miller” instead of “Gillis” when it was copied over to the Clinton petition. Another’s last name originally was written as “Wesser” before the writer wrote “Webber” over it.
“Most people can sign their name and also print it,” Speckin, the handwriting expert, said of such errors. “Even at a low-level education, most people can cash their paycheck. ... I don’t think I’ve ever misspelled my first or last name since the first grade.’
He noted that none of the names on the Schellinger petition are corrected or misspelled, because legitimate signatories will almost never make such mistakes.
“That’s a good (example) of what happens when people sign petitions,” he said.
Speckin is an internationally known forensics document analyst. His firm, Speckin Forensic Laboratories, is headquartered in Okemos, Mich.
Speckin says he has worked on more than 50 ballot-petition cases in many states during his career.
The Obama campaign and the Office of the Secretary of State did not immediately respond Friday afternoon to separate e-mails seeking comment on the faked signatures.
Nees is a junior at Yale University. The Kokomo native has interned for Howey Politics Indiana, Sen. Dick Lugar, and The White House.
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