Margaret Sarama signed a petition in August 2000 to recall Apache Junction Justice of the Peace Corwin Brundrett. But there was a problem. Sarama was dead the day the petition was signed. The 78-year-old seamstress and World War II veteran died in November 1999.
She is buried in a Mesa cemetery.
Sarama’s signature was one of hundreds questioned by the Pinal County Recorder’s Office when it checked the petitions for validity. Of the 1,518 signatures turned in to recall the judge, only 181 proved valid.
Apache Junction police soon launched an investigation into a Phoenix homeless man who was paid to circulate many of the petitions. But the man who had gathered the signatures disappeared and no charges were filed.
They rarely are. Officials say they frequently see obvious cases of forgery and fraud in local and statewide petition efforts, but the business of paid petitions goes virtually unregulated.
The right to petition the government through initiative and referendum is supposed to be the ultimate redress of the people — the one opportunity to put a law directly into the books that the government cannot touch.
But a Tribune investigation has found the process is largely controlled by big-money interests that advance their agendas by paying hefty sums of cash to professional petition circulators with no loyalty to the issue.
And some petition circulators are plenty willing to bend the law, the Tribune found. They often swarm into town just long enough to gather names to paper, collect their checks and move on to other places where someone else is paying a premium for signatures.
The cooling fall weather means that Arizona, a popular state for initiatives, soon will be a major attraction for professional petitioners looking to put an issue on the 2004 ballot.
Paid circulators now are the norm, according to political consultants and election officials. Signature gathering is sometimes the largest expense in a campaign, with the going rate for each John Hancock ranging from 50 cents to $5.
"We get so many petitioners who do a few and then they disappear and you never hear from them again," said Tempe resident John Irvine, who worked for several years with Mesa-based Lee Petition Management. "They live paycheck to paycheck, and whoever will put them in a motel, they’ll work for."
Yet only five paid petition circulators have been convicted of forging petitions in the past six years.
"We’ve gone after several circulators, but that’s not really getting to where the heart of the problem is," said Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley. "To me, part of the problem is the petition companies, the companies that hire these circulators. We’ve had a lot of information come our way that they basically look at (the petition), do a wink and a nod and allow almost any name to come in."
Campaign committees that back initiatives have found it nearly impossible to operate without paid circulators. No group in 20 years has collected enough signatures to land an initiative on the statewide ballot without using paid help, political consultants and elections officials say.
More than $3.2 million was spent on petitions to put four initiatives on the 2002 statewide general election ballot, according to reports from the Secretary of State’s Office.
And paid circulators are becoming more common in citywide issues.
The Tribune found that political groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on paid circulators in the past five years, including more than $280,000 to put an issue on the ballot that would have created a Scottsdale municipal fire department.
Signature gathering was by far the firefighters’ largest campaign expense, especially because the statewide campaigns were kicking up and competition for paid circulators was intense, said Steve Springborn, president of the United Maricopa County Firefighters Association.
"Near the end we were working against the state initiatives," he said. "We were paying up to $4 a signature."
Most paid petitioners say they operate above-board and get to know the issues — even if they don’t agree with them.
Yet Romley said he has seen enough problems to consider conducting an undercover investigation into a petition circulation company. But he said he couldn’t round up enough evidence that company owners knew about fraudulent practices to justify an investigation.
"It’s prevalent," he said. "It’s very disconcerting. It really undermines our process."
The scams are well-known and well-practiced, according to several paid petition circulators. Most also are difficult to catch.
Only the amateurs copy names and addresses from phone books. Elections officials are currently searching for Willie Mack, who turned in petitions to challenge the Tempe smoking ordinance that they suspect were copied out of the phone book, said Karen Osborne, elections director for the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office.
Elections examiners identified the specific page in the Phoenix metropolitan phone book the names were likely copied from, she said. Many of the signatures on Mack’s petitions appear to be the same scrawl. Some names were even listed alphabetically: "Dennis. Dosch. Dose. Dorsey. Dorson."
This summer, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge threw out Mack’s signatures because he had several felony convictions, making him ineligible to circulate petitions in the first place.
Among the most blatant and common methods of forging signatures is a practice known as "round-tabling," in which a group of circulators gets together and passes petitions between members, each forging a different name. The handwriting looks different — and therefore valid — because different people sign each name.
Crooked circulators often use names and addresses from "walking lists" obtained from political parties, said Philip Lambiase, a former professional circulator who is one of the few people charged with petition forgery. He pleaded guilty to one count of "fraudulent schemes and practices" — a felony — in August 1999.
Circulators rarely get caught unless they sign a petition that they personally turn in, allowing officials to compare handwriting on the fronts of petitions with the circulator’s signature on the back, Lambiase said. Indeed, that proved to be his mistake.
"The round-table scenario is actually (a) favorite because it is almost impossible for you to be indicted unless your signature is on that line," he said.
Lambiase also said he was prosecuted for signing the backs of petitions he didn’t carry.
"As far as it being a regular practice, no it wasn’t," Lambiase said. "It was a simple situation of there were three weeks left in the campaign. We needed the signatures so we went ahead and hired some people that were less desirable than we should have. And when they came back the stuff wasn’t notarized. They hadn’t endorsed them so we couldn’t submit them.
"Later on, I found out that they were frauds, they were forgeries," he said. "Well, my name is on the back of them as endorsing them, so I ended up taking the brunt of it."
Lambiase was prosecuted, completed his probation, paid his fines and has left what he considers the seedy business for good, he said.
Other circulators have been known to obtain valid signatures on the streets and then recopy them.
Former Arizona State University student Sally Kendell said she was in a hurry last fall when she was approached by a woman who asked for her signature on the petitions to loosen Tempe’s smoking ban and allow smoking in bars.
"She was real pushy," Kendell said. "I kept saying, ‘I don’t live in Tempe. I don’t think I can sign it.’ And she would say, ‘Well, do you have any address?’ I said, ‘Well, I guess my parents’ address (in Tempe).’ It was like, get off my back."
Kendell said she supports Tempe’s smoking ban and signed the petitions just once, the time the woman pursued her. Yet her name appears four times next to her parents’ Tempe address.
Some petitioners will go to any length to pull valid names out of thin air.
Diane Harris, who has circulated petitions for years, said she heard circulators bragging about pulling names off gravestones.
"I’ve met some really ethical petitioners out there. I’ve met some people who just aren’t ethical," she said. "A lot of people who forge petitions go to grave sites to pick up names. It’s just amazing what you’ll see."
No one is immune from having a name forged — even state legislators. In 2000, officials identified several forged names of former lawmakers on petitions to qualify Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan for the Arizona presidential ballot, said Osborne, of the county recorders office.
The sheets containing the legislators’ signatures were circulated by Jesus Lorie, a Cuban immigrant with a criminal record who claimed the site of the America West Arena as his residence, according to court records. Lorie was paid 50 cents for each signature. He admitted forging the names from a list he got at the library. In 2001, Lorie pleaded guilty to one count of fraudulent schemes, a felony, and was sentenced to probation.
The Lorie petitions are still used by the recorder’s office as a teaching tool in how to spot forgeries.
"There’s a lot more problems that we turn over to the county attorney’s office that don’t ever result in prosecution because there may not be enough that they can prove," said Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, the county’s chief elections officer.
A POPULAR ADDRESS
Not all deceptive practices of petition gatherers involve forged signatures.
Arizona law requires circulators to be residents with an "intent" to live in the state. But some circulation companies accept hotel receipts as proof of residency.
The residency requirement is virtually unenforceable, Osborne said. Under state law, anyone who is physically present in the state and has an intent to remain is considered a resident, she said.
A popular address of circulators is a homeless mail drop at 813 W. Madison St. in Phoenix, the Tribune discovered while reviewing hundreds of East Valley and statewide petitions.
A review of petitions submitted in 2001 to change regulations on Gilbert gas stations found that nine of the 15 paid circulators of the petitions used the 813 W. Madison St. as their residency address, making the circulators difficult to track down when opponents of that petition drive began to allege fraud.
Circulators also must be eligible to vote, meaning they have no recent felony convictions. The Tribune has identified more than a dozen people who circulated large numbers of petitions in 2002 who had criminal records ranging from check fraud to car theft and were ineligible to circulate because a judge had not restored their voting rights.
Paid petitioners long have been known to misrepresent the issue they are pushing. A Tribune article in 1995 documented that paid circulators in a recall effort against Scottsdale’s mayor and City Council actually were telling people that the petitions would create a mountain preserve.
"Sometimes they mislead people and get them to sign," said Mesa City Councilwoman Janie Thom, who said she is seeing fraud in petition circulation more frequently, including in local elections.
More than a dozen people testified in court this summer that they were told petitions they signed would preserve Tempe’s tough smoking ban. In actuality, the petitions were being gathered to weaken the smoking ban by allowing people to smoke in bars.
Tempe resident Lola Dunaway testified that she thought she was supporting the ban on smoking in bars when she signed a petition on the way into the Tempe Public Library.
"I was in a hurry," Dunaway testified. "I signed it because it would strengthen the law we have."
Irvine, who worked to strike down many of the Tempe signatures, said petitioners often feel out a voter and make their pitch accordingly.
"One trick of a petitioner is someone walks up and you say, ‘Where do you stand on this issue?’ " he said. "When they tell you, you say, ‘I’ve got a petition for you.’ "
State law requires a complete text of the proposal to be included on each petition, but it is up to the person signing to read and understand the measure, Osborne said.
"It’s a ‘buyer beware’ thing," she said.
Many permanent residents with a stake in Arizona politics are petition circulators, and they say they take great pains to avoid the shady practices of some of their counterparts in the industry.
Cleo Phillips of Chandler, who was among the most active circulators in the 2002 election, said she gets permission to gather signatures from the property owner, doesn’t troll through parking lots and doesn’t pressure people to sign.
"You can’t solicit people," Phillips said. "You just can sit there at your table and the people come up to you if you are legit. You explain it to them. You have a professional sheet that they can read. And then if they are interested in it and want to sign it, then they can do so."
Longtime signature gatherer Allen Sklar said he pushed all of the statewide gaming initiatives last year and gave people important information on each, even though he had questions on them all.
"Personally, I think all three of them were bad," Sklar said.
If a circulator has several petitions, he or she likely will first push the one that pays the most. Circulators who carry five or six petitions can make thousands of dollars a week.
"You put the money makers on top," Sklar said.
Ted King of Scottsdale also said he carries multiple petitions. A retired builder, King said he often meets with community groups, explains the initiatives he is circulating and has a ready stack of newspaper articles explaining what the proposal would do.
Some circulators defend their pay, saying they’re working to put an issue on the ballot for all voters to decide.
"My congressman and my representative get money for what they did," said longtime circulator Harris. "People will say, ‘No one elected you.’ No one elected me, that is true. But the sheer fact that we can still go out and put an issue on the ballot — I don’t want to ever let that go. Never."
THE COST OF ENFORCEMENT
The county has to keep an eye on all signatures gathered — the people most often prosecuted for forging petitions are candidates who forge signatures for their own campaigns.
Earlier this year, Ramon Carrasco of Chandler was charged with fraud and forgery for forging names on his own nominating petitions for Chandler justice of the peace. He pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
Four other candidates for justice of the peace or the Legislature also have been prosecuted in recent years. And three candidates for the state House of Representatives have been prosecuted for forging donation forms required under the state’s clean elections law.
Checking all of these signatures isn’t cheap. It costs the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office an average of $1.12 for each signature it has to check, Osborne said. When validity rates show a petition is marginal, every signature requires verification, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in a statewide ballot initiative.
Tempe officials estimate that the city will spend tens of thousands of dollars to handle the petitions to roll back the smoking ban and to represent the city in the court case challenging them. Now the city is holding off while each of the 17,635 signatures is checked individually at the county.
Sklar, who circulated petitions in the Tempe drive, said paid signature gathering always will attract problem signatures and a few people with questionable methods because of the on-again, offagain nature of the business.
"We’re not talking about a $60-, $80- or $100,000-a-year job with three job references," Sklar said. "You’re getting some bad apples in there, unfortunately."