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Fri., July 16, 2010, 4:25 p.m.

Signature fraud evidence goes to State Patrol

OLYMPIA --In a case that may involve the most careless or most blatant example of signature fraud in Washington political history, elections officials turned over petitions with as many as 349 bogus signatures to the State Patrol Forensics Lab. The volunteer who submitted them in could face felony fraud charges.

The suspect's name is being withheld, but elections officials have confirmed this much about her: She is a member of the Service Employees International Union, which is backing Initiative 1098, but wasn't being paid for her efforts.

(The I-1098 campaign paid for signatures, too, but there's no apparent problems with those petitions, nor on any of the other petitions that have been checked so far for proposals that paid for sigs. That tends to support the contention of Eddie "Spaghetti" Agazarm, signature gathering professional, who insists his checkers can spot a forgery across the room and it's the true believers, not the paid workers, who have the motivation to cheat the system.)

The suspect may have misunderstood the verification process, which is often referred to as a "spot check" when initiative drives pass a certain milepost. Before the spot check of 3 percent of the signatures is conducted, however, all the sheets are examined for names that are illegible, have missing signatures or addresses or other obvious errors.

It was during that process that elections workers noticed six sheets that stood out because they were all in the same ink, and seemed to be in the same handwriting, David Ammons, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, said: "There was no real effort to have the look and feel of a petition sheet, which is normally quite varied."

Think about it, folks. Twenty different people sign a standard petition sheet, often with different pens, at diferent times and in different places. They usually look a bit ragged by the time they get to the elections office.

Elections workers noticed that the same gatherer's name was on the back of each sheet. They pulled all of  her sheets, and found more that seemed to be in the same handwriting. Some appear to be actual voters, but the signatures are bogus, others have bad addresses, Ammons said. In the end, 89 percent of the signatures that gatherer submitted were bad; the average failure rate is about 18 percent.

Forensics experts will look at the sheets before the case is turned over to the King County prosecuting attorney, who would have the first call on filing criminal charges because that's where the signature gatherer lives.

The questioned signatures represent about one-tenth of 1 percent of the total submitted and the remaining petitions for I-1098 checked out, Ammons said. They had a failure rate that was on track with the average for ballot measures.

"There seems to be no systematic effort to stuff the ballot box," he said.

Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for the campaign, said the motive behind the alleged fraud "is still a mystery at this point."

As far as he knows, the SEIU wasn't offering any prizes or bonuses for signature gathering, so he doesn't know of any financial motive for turning in phony signatures, if that's in fact what happened, Kaushik said.

"We had more than 1,000 volunteers across the state," he said. "I don't want this to cast a cloud over that effort."

I-1098 got about a third of its signatures, around 120,000, from volunteers and the remainder from paid collectors.

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