Skip to comments.Board removes (Gary) George from primary ballot (Wisconsin)
Posted on 08/01/2002 10:28:26 PM PDT by petuniasevan
The Wisconsin Elections Board voted 7-1 Wednesday to remove state Sen. Gary George's name from the primary ballot for governor, saying "clear and convincing evidence" showed at least 221 signatures and addresses had been falsified or were not valid on George's nomination papers.
The Milwaukee Democrat needed 2,000 signatures to be placed on the ballot. The board's action left him 29 signatures short with 1,971.
Although the decision was difficult, the board was "compelled by statutes to remove him from the ballot," said Steven V. Ponto, board chairman.
"I firmly believe we came to the only decision we could," he said. "If we found in favor of Mr. George when he had not only invalid signatures but systematic problems, I don't think the nomination process would mean much going forward."
Reports to the Elections Board by three district attorneys, which were released Wednesday in conjunction with the board's decision, contained serious new accusations of possible criminal wrongdoing by George campaign workers.
Among them: George's campaign manager is accused of being involved in having circulators sign nomination papers they did not circulate, and that a George campaign volunteer allegedly instructed a Hmong woman to lie to the board and say she signed papers when she did not.
The decision followed a recommendation by board Executive Director Kevin Kennedy, who wrote that removing George was necessary because the papers "are significantly flawed."
It was the first time that a major gubernatorial candidate had been removed from the ballot in a Wisconsin election after qualifying for a race, Kennedy said.
After Wednesday's ruling, George's attorney, Mark Sostarich, told reporters that he did not know whether George would appeal the decision to the circuit court, a decision that would have to be made quickly because county clerks will start printing ballots for the Sept. 10 gubernatorial primary by Aug. 11.
Sostarich also said George, the only black major-party candidate for governor, might consider launching a write-in campaign, and several black leaders said they would urge George to do so.
While no evidence was presented that George knew of any fraud or forgeries, under Wisconsin law a candidate is responsible for making sure that nomination papers satisfy legal requirements, Kennedy said.
District attorneys in Milwaukee, Dane and La Crosse counties initially said they found a total of 231 invalid signatures: 128 in Milwaukee County; 64 in La Crosse; and 39 in Dane. But the Milwaukee County district attorney's office subtracted 10 from its tally in a hasty call to Kennedy Tuesday evening after finding that some addresses listed as invalid in its initial report to the board actually existed.
Included in the district attorneys' findings are more than 50 instances in which purported signers provided affidavits saying they did not sign.
Board member John Savage, a Milwaukee-area attorney and Republican party appointee to the board, cast the lone vote against removing George. Savage drove by four addresses listed as invalid and found that two existed. Those addresses were among the ones later subtracted by the Milwaukee County district attorney's office.
The removal of George from the ballot leaves three candidates in the primary - Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, U.S. Rep. Tom Barrett and Attorney General Jim Doyle.
Sostarich argued Wednesday that George's campaign had fallen victim to a "plot" to sabotage his campaign by political foes. Later, speaking with reporters, he specifically named Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala (D-Madison), who would not comment Wednesday.
But Sostarich did not provide any evidence beyond previously published reports that a former aide of Chvala assisted Madison college student Daniel McMurray, who filed the complaint with the Elections Board that first raised the allegations against George. That aide, Joel Gratz, also was a volunteer for Barrett's campaign, although Barrett says Gratz is no longer active.
After hearing McMurray's complaint on July 18, the board voted to keep George on the ballot for the time being, but asked the prosecutors to review the papers.
Sostarich told reporters that the George campaign suspected that an unnamed campaign volunteer associated with George rivals might have been planted in the campaign to forge papers.
But in the end, the George camp waved the white flag.
Sostarich did not lodge objections to most of the findings by the prosecutors who discredited the 221 signatures. He raised a challenge - not successful - only to 22 illegible signatures.
George said a few soft-spoken remarks in which he thanked the board for its consideration. A solemn George briefly clutched a longtime supporter's hand as he watched the proceedings. Upon hearing the decision, George grimaced, then swept out of the room after reaching into the audience to shake the hands of supporters.
He declined to comment to the phalanx of reporters who trailed him, other than saying he appreciated the board's consideration. Then he slipped into a white van parked outside Milwaukee City Hall and was driven away.
Later Wednesday, George met voluntarily with the Milwaukee County district attorney's office, and "said he had no knowledge of the forged signatures," said Jon Reddin, the prosecutor spearheading that investigation.
The prosecutors' reports presented to the Elections Board allege that:
Thao also told two investigators that his fiancee and fellow circulator, Debbie Thao, signed some George nomination papers at campaign headquarters that already bore signatures she had not collected after Begel said words to the effect: "Someone has to sign them," according to prosecutors' reports.
Telling someone to fraudulently sign a nomination paper could be construed as criminal suborning of perjury, and signing papers not personally circulated is a felony.
Begel did not return calls seeking comment.
The Milwaukee County district attorney's report says the "majority of suspect petitions" in that county were signed by Begel and the Thaos. None of the three was at Wednesday's meeting.
On July 8, Begel was recorded as working for George on the state payroll from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. He also reported gathering 71 signatures on nomination papers that day from signers with addresses all over the state.
Begel has hired a lawyer and has refused to speak with the district attorney's office.
When Yang was asked if she actually signed the papers, she shook her head, no. But Vang, acting as a translator because Yang doesn't speak English, told her to "say what I say, yes you did sign it," the reports say.
The woman spoke on George's behalf later that day at the board's July 18 meeting, saying she had signed.
Vang told investigators the woman was confusing him with Locha Thao, but said he contacted her at Thao's direction because Thao had heard that "Daniel McMurray" had called her.
He circulated 40 to 50 pages of them, meaning he certified that he gathered more than 400 signatures, according to Kennedy.
If a circulator certifies a petition but has not actually gathered the signatures, that is supposed to invalidate them. Kennedy told the board Wednesday he did not know which pages Thao circulated because Thao now has a lawyer and has backed away from some of his comments.
Reddin and the two district attorneys who also have launched criminal investigations - Scott Horne of La Crosse and Brian Blanchard of Dane County - all said their investigations were continuing and would not comment on whether charges were pending.
Horne, who said his office is assisting Milwaukee and Dane counties, said he believed it would probably be a criminal violation for a person to circulate a nomination paper that contained forgeries. However, Reddin said, "We would have to prove that a person knew the name was forged before we could prosecute a circulator, or knew that they were making a false attestation."
He added: "Hypothetically if you tell a person to sign and know it's false, that's a crime - election fraud."
Wasn't it Abraham Lincoln who said, "To determine a man's character, give him power"?
Well, GG's character is showing. Good thing he's off the ballot.
They probably won't charge him with a crime. He'd play the race card if it came to that. It's okay, though, for him to use and discard naive Hmong immigrants, you see.
It appears likely that crimes of some type were committed in the saga of state Sen. Gary George's flawed nomination papers, legal observers say. Among the flurry of allegations:
Despite a growing number of accusations, legal experts agree that there is one person who is likely not to be criminally charged: the former candidate himself.
That's because George, a Milwaukee Democrat, has denied any knowledge or involvement to prosecutors who reviewed the papers and are conducting criminal investigations; two of three have said there is no evidence thus far of involvement by George.
But, although some legal powerhouses think election fraud charges would be difficult to prove absent handwriting analysis or a witness to wrongdoing, other prominent legal observers feel that criminal charges will almost certainly result.
Three district attorneys, E. Michael McCann of Milwaukee County, Scott Horne of La Crosse County and Brian Blanchard of Dane County, have launched criminal investigations.
The George scandal ignited when a Madison college student lodged a complaint with the board, alleging numerous discrepancies. The board then requested that three prosecutors review the papers for fraud.
After hearing from prosecutors that 221 fraudulent signatures and addresses had been found, the board voted 7-1 Wednesday to remove George from the Sept. 10 gubernatorial ballot.
George's attorney, Mark Sostarich, has alleged that a plant from a political foe forged signatures to sabotage the campaign.
But the papers contain page after page of questionable signatures, and the most likely charges are against circulators, experts said Thursday.
"I strongly suspect we are going to see some serious criminal charges issued if they can decide who participated," said Janine Geske, interim dean of the Marquette University Law School and former Supreme Court justice. " . . . The circulator is going to be the first one on the line."
Concurred John Finerty, a Milwaukee attorney: "I do suspect the people who signed as circulators when they did not in fact circulate the papers are at some jeopardy. I would not be surprised if they were charged."
Still, Milwaukee County has a history of sometimes taking a pass in election fraud cases. Just a year ago, the Milwaukee County district attorney's office decided to charge a New York Democratic donor, Connie Milstein, in small claims court rather than with a felony. She was accused of giving packages of cigarettes to homeless men to get them to vote.
The office also took a pass at charging several hundred felons on probation or parole who had voted illegally. And it did not charge a former Milwaukee County elections commissioner who signed the fake name "Humphrey Pushcart" on a petition.
But a Milwaukee elections attorney, Michael Maistelman, said George's campaign manager, David Begel, could be in trouble over allegations about doing campaign work on state time.
Although election fraud is not a common charge, Maistelman thinks the shifting political environment also may make charges more likely. A former candidate for county executive, Fidelis Omegbu, was charged in the spring with felony election fraud in Milwaukee after being accused of falsifying signatures on his nomination papers.
"You have all this out there - the Brian Burke matter, the caucus scandal, the County Board issues, and now we have a public that is angry, and I think the climate has changed such that it would be unlikely if the DAs did not conduct further investigation into this," Maistelman said.
And even Stephen Glynn, who defended Milstein and feels that a case in the George situation would be difficult to make, said he thinks that if any charges come, they are most likely to come from Blanchard.
But Glynn feels that, even though a prosecutor could charge someone who certified a nomination paper that included forgeries, it should not be done lightly.
"I don't think anyone's going to hold a circulator responsible for something that someone else signed," Glynn said.
Horne declined to comment on George's case. But he said that in election fraud cases, he considers such things as intent, and whether it appears systematic.
Deputy District Attorney Jon Reddin, who is leading Milwaukee County's inquiry, said hurdles in proving nomination paper fraud in general include showing whether the circulator knew the signatures were false: Someone could sign "Eleanor Roosevelt or whatever" and the circulator might not know who the signer was and "assume it's correct."
I wonder what's up with that.