Criminal investigators with the Arizona Attorney General's Office appear to be looking into whether fraud was the reason some major issues failed to land on the November ballot.
An official with the Secretary of State's Office on Friday said his agency has been working with investigators since August, when several major initiatives fell off the ballot because thousands of signatures were found to be invalid.
The casualties included two issues championed by Gov. Janet Napolitano - a tax increase for new roads and an effort to put 580,000 acres of state trust land off-limits to developers.
Deputy Secretary of State Kevin Tyne said his agency initially alerted the attorney general's criminal division about "a lot" of "potentially fraudulent" signatures that were submitted in an effort to get certain initiatives on the ballot.
"If things stood out to us, we made copies, set those aside and forwarded them to the attorney general's office," Tyne said.
Since then, investigators have kept in contact and even asked state election officials to lock the original signatures in a vault, Tyne said.
"The attorney general is very concerned with the high failure rate of signatures this year," said Anne Hilby, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Terry Goddard. "We're going to be taking a close look to determine if any fraud occurred. This is an issue we are taking very seriously."
But Hilby added that she could neither confirm nor deny an investigation was taking place. Arizona is one of a handful of states that allow citizens to circulate petitions in order to put issues on the ballot.
Supporters must first gather enough signatures to qualify the issue for a vote.
In years past, Tyne said, some citizen initiatives have had problems with suspect signatures.
"There have been times that we've had questionable material turned in, but not to the extent that we've seen it in this past year," he said.
The two initiatives Napolitano backed were both unexpectedly tossed from the ballot in August after state and county elections officials determined a total of nearly 300,000 of the signatures they turned in to qualify for the November ballot were invalid.
A third initiative, which would have banned preferential hiring practices based on race and gender, also was kept off the ballot because more than 40 percent of the signatures were voided.
Some of the people backing the initiatives, however, have since turned the spotlight on the secretary of state's own accounting practices.
Democratic political consultant Bob Grossfeld said on Friday he hopes any investigation also focuses on how the signatures were counted.
Grossfeld owns 30 percent of Petition Partners, a company hired to gather signatures for Napolitano's two major initiatives. The company has not been named as part of any review of petitions by the attorney general's office.
"If there is any type of investigation taking place," Grossfeld said, "I would hope they would also be investigating the Secretary of State's Office."
But Tyne said any accusation that the problems were on the state's end is inaccurate.
"We find it a bit ironic that some of these circulating companies would point the finger at the election process rather than taking responsibility for their own ineptitude," Tyne said.