For now, Michael Brown survives ballot challenges


Council member Michael Brown, pictured, helped dedicate the stretch of 14th St NW between Constitution and Pennsylvania as Ron Brown Way in honor of former Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown in March, 2011. (Michael Temchine/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 29, 2012

D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown has tentatively overcome two challenges that aim to throw him off the November ballot, but his campaign must now survive an allegation that it forged hundreds of signatures to qualify for the election.

Brown, an at-large independent seeking a second term, is battling separate complaints — one by opponent David Grosso, the other by civic activist Dorothy Brizill and her husband — over the validity of signatures he filed with the D.C. Board of Elections.

Grosso, an independent running against Brown, and Brizill allege that Brown failed to collect the 3,000 signatures from registered voters required of citywide council candidates to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. Brown turned in 4,675 signatures, but Grosso and Brizill say more than 2,000 were duplicates, came from unregistered voters or were gathered by people not authorized to circulate petitions.

The complaints force Brown into an uncomfortable position as he enters the fall campaign, which could be hindered by questions about his finances and potential voter backlash over ethics controversies in the John A. Wilson Building.

“We believe there was a prevalent violation of our election law,” Brizill said at a preliminary hearing Wednesday by the Board of Elections and Ethics. “We have clearly found a pattern of forgery and irregularities.”

Brown’s attorney, Thorn L. Pozen, strongly challenged Brizill’s accusations, calling them “wild, reckless and truly without basis.”

“We see no pattern of any enforceable action,” Pozen told board attorney Rudolph McGann at Wednesday’s hearing. “These broad, reckless allegations come without specificity.”

Brown appears to have the upper hand. Karen Brooks, the elections board’s registrar, tentatively decided Wednesday that the signatures Grosso and Brizill challenged were not enough to deny Brown a spot on the ballot.

After reviewing Grosso’s challenge and matching it against voter rolls, Brooks said she identified 3,390 valid signatures from registered voters — 390 above what’s needed to qualify. A line-by-line review of Brizill’s challenge revealed that Brown still had 3,272 valid signatures.

But Brooks did not rule on the forgery allegations, leaving that for the three-member board to determine at a hearing early next month.

Still, Brown spokesman Asher Corson said Brooks’s findings confirmed the campaign’s belief that it easily qualified for the ballot.

“It’s disappointing that the BOE and our campaign is being forced to spend so much time talking about petitions when we should be talking about jobs,” Corson said.

Grosso said he will ask the board to override Brooks’s initial finding at its next meeting. When he and his attorneys conducted a cursory review of the preliminary ruling, Grosso said he discovered at least 40 signatures that should have been tossed.

“I think it’s important to continue to move forward,” said Grosso, a lawyer who lives in Brookland. “I’m pretty comfortable we will get enough to get him below 3,000.”

Regardless of the outcome, the dispute could boost Grosso’s name recognition as he competes for Brown’s seat, one of two reserved for a member of a minority party. Republican Mary Brooks Beatty is also a candidate.

After two council members resigned as part of federal investigations into city corruption, Grosso and Beatty are making ethics a centerpiece of their campaigns. Although Brown has not been implicated in recent ethical controversies, he’s struggled with questions about his personal finances, including failure to pay his taxes, rent and mortgage on time.

Grosso said Wednesday that Brown’s petitions are indicative of a “whole system of mismanagement in Michael Brown’s life.”

Corson responded: “Clearly, Mr. Grosso is reeling from his preliminary defeat at the Board of Elections and is making a last-ditch effort to stay relevant in District politics. . . . He is leveling personal attacks that the campaign will not respond to.”

But Brown is also up against two well-known watchdogs. Brizill and her husband, Gary Imhoff, authors of the DCWatch blog, have challenged public officials over ethics rules and election laws for more than two decades.

In 2002, Brizill discovered discrepancies in Mayor Anthony A. Williams’s petitions that led to his name being removed from the ballot because of fraudulent signatures. Williams successfully ran as a write-in candidate.

Brizill said she found numerous pages with similar handwriting during her review of signatures Brown submitted to the BOE. Some submitted signatures did not match printed names, she alleged.

“When you have someone who clearly prints the name ‘Smith’ but signs the name ‘Thompson,’ there is a problem,” Brizill told elections officials. “This is not something that happens by accident.”

Brizill also alleges that some names are not aligned with addresses and that the addresses are aligned with other names. She alleges that a petition worker for Brown copied names and addresses directly off voter rolls, at times mismatching names and addresses on the petition.

When the board meets next month to review the complaints, Brizill plans to call witnesses, she said. She also will ask the board to subpoena Brown and several members of his staff.

Pozen said he will ask the board to dismiss the forgery complaint, arguing that it’s not specific enough to meet legal standards.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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