News: Fake Followers

Is the CCV petition drive scandal about sloppiness or fraud?

Aug 30, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes/

The manner in which addresses were altered in anti-gay referendum petitions was so thorough that it must have been deliberate, according to Gary Wright of Citizens to Restore Fairness, a group working for equality.

A long political battle over Cincinnati's anti-discrimination law for gays and lesbians recently took an unusual turn when opponents abruptly dropped efforts to overturn the ordinance amid a criminal investigation into allegations of forgery and fraud.

The bizarre circumstances have created a whodunit that has the potential to implicate some well-known political figures.

Equal Rights Not Special Rights — a conservative group affiliated with Citizens for Community Values (CCV) that formed to overturn the law — announced two weeks ago that it was canceling a petition drive to force a voter referendum Nov. 7. The group made the decision after the law's primary backer, Citizens to Restore Fairness, filed a complaint with the Hamilton County Board of Elections questioning the validity of many signatures submitted by CCV.

Citizens to Restore Fairness noted that more than 1,000 of the 7,656 signatures collected by CCV had addresses that were marked out and altered. The addresses that were changed were for signers who lived outside Cincinnati city limits — and were therefore ineligible to sign the petitions or vote on the issue — and were replaced by addresses for people who live within the city and have the same or similar names.

In one instance, a signature listing an address in Cleves was changed to an address for a woman of the same name living in Cincinnati's Prospect Hill neighborhood. That caught the attention of Gary Wright, who heads Citizens to Restore Fairness, because he knows the city resident and couldn't believe she'd sign the petition.

"I called her, and she had no idea what I was talking about," Wright says. "She told me she definitely never signed any petition."

Prosecutor investigates
The sheer number of altered addresses raised a red flag with Wright and other backers of the anti-discrimination law and prompted them to conduct an experiment. Citizens to Restore Fairness distributed about 900 letters via certified mail to names on the petitions containing addresses that had been changed, and more than half were returned as "undeliverable."

"At that point, we knew something was wrong with the petitions," Wright says.

As Citizens to Restore Fairness prepared its complaint, CCV announced it was withdrawing the petitions. In a press release, CCV President Phil Burress didn't mention the dispute over the changed addresses, instead attributing the decision to CCV's realization that 18 signatures were forgeries. Among those signatures were Reds owner Bob Castellini, ailing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Gregory Korte. Castellini and Korte have said they never signed any petitions; the hospitalized Castro hasn't been spotted in Cincinnati.

Burress blamed the deception on "one of the temporary day laborers hired to help circulate the petition." The name of the woman who circulated the petition containing the 18 contested signatures was given to the board of elections, which planned to hold a hearing into the matter.

CCV paid for a full-page advertisement in The Enquirer, painting the group as the victim of an unscrupulous circulator.

"The people of Cincinnati deserved to vote on this issue," Burress' statement said. "Due to the lack of integrity of one paid circulator, they will be prevented from doing so."

Typically, petition campaigns hire people to collect signatures for $1 or $2 each. It's not uncommon for some circulators to submit petitions with obviously bogus names, political veterans say — but usually they're caught by the group that hired them and never submitted to the board of elections. Even if the group doesn't catch them, the board will spot the discrepancies and not certify those petitions.

How the 18 false signatures on CCV's petitions passed both hurdles is unclear. Even more puzzling is how petitions containing 1,016 signatures with altered addresses didn't raise questions by the board of elections; those signatures were included in the 7,656 it certified in June.

After Citizens to Restore Fairness filed its challenge, the board scheduled an Aug. 17 hearing and subpoenaed several people connected to the petition effort. But the board met in a closed-door executive session for about 30 minutes, then announced the hearing was canceled because CCV had withdrawn the petitions and stopped its referendum bid.

At the same time, the board announced the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office was investigating the petitions, and investigators had consulted with board members.

Asked whether the board or the prosecutor's investigation will try to determine who changed the addresses on the petitions, Board Chair Timothy Burke said, "By instruction of counsel, I don't have any comment on that."

Because the matter is part of an ongoing investigation, John Williams, the board's executive director, wouldn't discuss details. But he says the large amount of altered addresses was not typical.

"There were a lot," Williams says. "There were many, many of them. It's not uncommon to have some, but this was significantly more than usual."

'Lost their bearings'
In March, city council passed the anti-discrimination law, the first time such a measure was in effect in Cincinnati for nearly 13 years. The CCV-related group had until mid-April to collect the signatures of 7,654 registered Cincinnati voters to put a referendum on the November ballot, which would ask voters to rescind the law.

The group collected more than 14,000 signatures, but the board immediately dismissed about half as ineligible. That left CCV with 7,656 signatures, just two more than legally required, and with little wiggle room if any were disqualified through a challenge.

Citizens to Restore Fairness argues that the manner in which addresses were changed proves a systemic effort by CCV, not the isolated actions of a lone circulator. Matching the names of non-Cincinnati residents with the addresses of city residents with similar names requires an organized effort that could only come from someone comparing the names with the rolls of registered voters, according to Jennifer Branch, the group's attorney.

"If this is allowed to happen and it's not investigated, then they will be able to circulate petitions in the future and go back and change any signer's address without that person's consent," Branch says. "This group did that 1,000 times in this petition effort. How many will that happen to next time?"

"The issue here goes deeper than a few people screwing up on a couple of petitions," Wright says.

In accordance with state law, CCV filed documents stating it paid $40,000 for the petition circulation effort. In the slot for the names and addresses of the people paid, however, the group wrote, "Under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, this information is not required to be reported." The group cited a 1999 case as precedent.

Branch disagrees but wonders why the group is afraid to disclose who received the payments. Wright has given investigators the names of two people in CCV's campaign that he suspects might have been paid; he declined to provide the names to CityBeat.

Burress didn't return calls seeking comment.

In the end, CCV's failure to collect enough valid signatures could be rooted in Cincinnati's changing demographics, with the city becoming more Democratic and moderate as Republicans and conservatives continue moving to outlying suburbs.

Still, CCV wields considerable clout with some area politicians and business leaders. Among its supporters are U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Westwood), millionaire Carl Lindner, Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich, Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Monzel, former councilmen Charlie Winburn and Sam Malone and the Rev. K.Z. Smith.

Although Wright is pleased CCV's referendum effort has ended, he believes the group might try another. But the group's tactics in the latest effort are at odds with its stated moral values, he says.

"I think it's pretty clear they think they're above the law," Wright says. "They have totally lost their moral bearings. Apparently, deceit and fraud are OK as long as it fits their cause. They don't know the difference between right and wrong." ©