The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Board boots business-backed council candidate from D.C. ballot, citing signature fraud

D.C. Council candidate S. Kathryn Allen in June. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Board of Elections ordered business-backed council candidate S. Kathryn Allen off the November ballot, citing evidence of widespread forgeries and other fraud in her qualifying petitions.

Shortly before midnight Monday, election officials upheld a request by D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) to disqualify hundreds of signatures submitted on behalf of her opponent Allen after three circulators listed on Allen’s petitions said that they did not collect the signatures and that their names were forged.

Officials also disqualified some signatures collected by Allen’s campaign manager that appeared to be copied from petition sheets for another council candidate.

That left Allen with only 2,426 of the required 3,000 valid signatures.

“The challenger has raised the specter of fraud in the petition process with respect to four of the campaign circulators associated with Kathryn Allen,” Board of Elections Chairman D. Mi chael Bennett wrote in an order issued right around the midnight deadline. “The Board has cause for concern that the integrity of the signature collection process was flawed.”

The board also said it would refer allegations of fraud to the office of the attorney general for investigation.

Allen, a 63-year-old executive and first-time candidate, did not return calls for comment Tuesday, and neither did her spokeswoman or her campaign chairmen, former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and former D.C. Council member David Catania (I).

Allen could file an appeal with the D.C. Court of Appeals, although the campaign released a statement that suggested that was unlikely. The statement blamed a company Allen hired to collect signatures.

“It is extremely unfortunate that our decision to contract with a petition circulator service cast a shadow on an otherwise optimistic and unifying campaign,” the statement said.

“We have learned some hard lessons and will offer our suggestions to the D.C. Board of Elections to reform the petition circulation process, so that this does not happen to future candidates,” the statement continued. “We are most disappointed that we will not be able to focus on the issues that D.C. residents care about, and our vision for a city that benefits residents in every neighborhood.”

Silverman praised the ruling.

“The Board’s decision clearly communicated that fraud is not permissible,” Silverman said in a statement. “D.C. residents need to be able to trust our elections process. The idea behind nominating petitions is for a candidate to demonstrate some grass-roots support among voters, and that should not be faked.”

The board prematurely ended what was shaping up as the most competitive race of the November general election in the District. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) are seeking second terms without serious competition, and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) is unopposed.

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The decision is a blemish for the business leaders and high-profile political figures who supported Allen, including Williams, Catania and Bowser, who boosted Allen’s candidacy behind the scenes. Williams had his own signature scandal that forced him to seek reelection as a write-in candidate in 2002, doing so successfully.

Bowser, who has clashed with Silverman, solicited a business executive to support Allen, and her campaign staffers helped collect signatures for the candidate.

Silverman, a former journalist and policy analyst seeking a second full term, is a reliably progressive vote on the council and found herself in the crosshairs of the business community because she co-sponsored a sweeping paid family- and sick-leave benefits program that taxes employers.

Silverman challenged Allen’s qualifying petitions last month, citing technical errors and affidavits from more than a dozen people who said their signatures were forged.

Candidates in the District must submit a minimum number of signatures from registered voters that varies with the office. Many first-time candidates pay people to collect signatures, a sometimes tedious task that involves hours of standing outside grocery stores, Metro stations and other public spots.

Allen faulted Strategies for Change, the firm she hired to collect signatures, for submitting bad petition sheets. She initially insisted her volunteers and family members collected enough legitimate ones to qualify for the ballot.

After an initial review, the election registrar disqualified nearly half of Allen’s signatures and left her with 3,101.

But hundreds of the signatures counted as valid came from petition sheets that were signed by people who said they never worked for the Allen campaign. Each sheet of signatures must be signed by the person who collected them.

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One of the signers testified at a Board of Elections hearing last week that he had not collected the signatures attributed to him. Another submitted an affidavit saying her signature was forged.

An attorney for Allen suggested that they were lying to avoid being linked to a scandal and presented evidence of their signatures on their voter registration forms that looked similar to the ones they claimed were forged on Allen petitions.

The board was not convinced and agreed with the Silverman campaign, citing precedent set in the signature-fraud scandal from Williams’s 2002 mayoral run.

“As in the case of Brizill v. Williams, the Board is compelled to disallow all signatures from circulators who disavow circulating the nominating petition sheets attributed to them, and/or have a taint of documented fraudulent activity,” Bennett wrote in his opinion.

Strategies for Change leader Khalil Thompson resigned from his D.C. government position last month amid scrutiny of his political side business. He has not responded to requests for comments on the allegations about the petitions his firm collected.

Strategies for Change also collected signatures for Silverman opponents Traci Hughes and Rustin Lewis. Hughes dropped out of the race after receiving what she called hundreds of fraudulent signatures from the firm; Lewis’s signatures were not challenged.

Allen’s campaign manager, Kevin Parker, has also been accused of faking signatures. Neither he nor the campaign have responded to repeated questions about the allegations against him and whether he is still involved in the campaign.

In its opinion, the board noted it also was unable to reach Parker for an explanation on why some of the signatures he collected appeared to be copied from petition sheets for an unsuccessful at-large candidate in the Democratic primary, Marcus Goodwin.

The board threw out 217 signatures attributable to Parker.

The Allen campaign also sought to restore 638 signatures disqualified because the circulator who gathered them did not fill out the proper paperwork for nonresident signature collectors. The board said that the argument had merit but that those signatures also had “irregularities” and could not be accepted.

Voters in November can pick two candidates for at-large council seats. By law, only one can be a Democrat. Council member Anita Bonds is on the ballot as the Democratic nominee, appearing alongside Silverman, independents Lewis and Dionne Reeder and several third-party candidates who have raised little campaign cash.