OLYMPIA – Before Dennis O’Shea took his own life, he placed a box on the seat of his car with a note asking whoever found his body to deliver the documents inside to his friend and former colleague Steve Tucker.
About two weeks earlier, the petition-signing phase for Initiative 985 had concluded and nearly 300,000 signatures were turned in for the proposal to open carpool lanes and synchronize traffic. O’Shea – a former Spokane County deputy prosecutor-turned-professional signature-gatherer – already had flagged about 40 names among those gathered to qualify I-985 for the 2008 ballot that he suspected were phony. State and local elections officials had been alerted and were investigating possible forgeries.
In documents he left for Tucker before connecting a garden hose to his exhaust pipe, O’Shea wrote he should have watched some of his workers more closely and emphasized his wife knew nothing of the problems.
“He was taking the responsibility, but not saying he was involved,” Tucker said recently. “He wanted me to have some papers.”
The documents eventually became part of a Washington State Patrol investigation into two of O’Shea’s Spokane workers, Theresa Dedeaux and her daughter Mercedes Dedeaux. After a state crime lab analyst found 40 suspect signatures turned in by Theresa Dedeaux, a WSP detective sent copies of the petitions to those voters; 29 wrote back saying that wasn’t their signature.
When WSP Detective Ryan Spangler contacted Theresa Dedeaux in January 2009, she would only say “everything we did was at the direction of Dennis O’Shea” – who at that point had been dead for six months.
Checking documents in the box O’Shea left for Tucker, Spangler found petitions from Mercedes Dedeaux; when he sent copies to some voters listed on those petitions, 29 said their signatures were fake. Mother and daughter were each charged with eight counts of forgery in Spokane County Superior Court; they pleaded not guilty and await trial.
The case of O’Shea and the Dedeauxs was cited recently by both sides in the ongoing debate in Olympia over new restrictions on paid signature-gatherers.
A coalition of labor and liberal social-action groups raised it in supporting a pair of bills introduced this winter that required paid signature-gatherers to register with the Public Disclosure Commission; swear they know the law; not have been convicted of a felony for five years; and carry picture ID when working.
“We’re pushing for better laws regarding the ballot process,” said Kristina Logsdon of the Ballot Initiative Network coalition.
But an official of Citizen Solutions Inc. said the Dedeaux cases really show the bills aren’t needed. The Lacey, Wash., company received $493,000 from Tim Eyman’s organization to collect signatures for I-985 and employed O’Shea as a private contractor. O’Shea tipped off Citizen Solutions executives about some of Theresa Dedeaux’s petitions, and the company brought them to the attention of state and county elections officials, said Eddie Agazarm, the company’s vice president.
“We can spot forged signatures from across the room,” Agazarm said.
One bill passed the Senate, but both stalled and are likely dead in the House for this session. The Dedeaux cases, however, are pending.
State and local elections officials credit Citizen Solutions with first raising questions about the petitions O’Shea flagged. No one is sure why O’Shea kept other petitions from Mercedes Dedeaux rather than turning them in.
Former deputy prosecutors who worked with O’Shea described him as “a well-liked and stand-up guy.” Tucker said that when he joined the prosecutor’s office, O’Shea served as his mentor. In 1990, O’Shea lost his job after a drunken driving accident. He took a job as a federal attorney on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands for about four years, returned to Spokane, and worked as a deputy city prosecutor until he was disbarred over a complaint in Saipan and was unable to get the sanction lifted. He went into the signature-gathering business, sometimes contracting with two or three different campaigns and collecting names on different petitions at the same location.
“He helped wave signs on corners for me that year and volunteered to put out some yard signs. He was a good friend,” said Tucker.
With O’Shea dead, Theresa Dedeaux’s contention that she followed orders from him may have to be weighed against his suicide note. But even if her story is true, Deputy Prosecutor Bill Jennison said, that’s not a legal defense for forgery. She’s scheduled for trial in early March.
While the forgery cases are pretty straightforward, Jennison said, the whole story “does have some interesting permutations.”
Mercedes Dedeaux, who will be tried separately in late March, blames her mother for any forgeries. Mark Moorer, a Moscow, Idaho, attorney defending the younger Dedeaux, said she contends she turned in petitions to her mother with valid signatures from people she approached and persuaded to sign.
But some petitions had blank spaces and the documents O’Shea left for Tucker are different than she remembers, Moorer said: “Somebody else altered the documents.”
Mercedes Dedeaux, now 20, was a subcontractor for her mother, who was a subcontractor for O’Shea, who was a subcontractor for Citizens Solutions and several other signature firms at various times. Mercedes never had direct contact with O’Shea, Moorer said, and only collected signatures for a short time.
“And she doesn’t intend to do it again,” he added. The former college student is now pursuing modeling.