It’s a case of signature fraud on ballot petitions with a twist: The people accused of forging signatures say they are also victims of forgery.
The D.C. Board of Elections heard testimony and arguments Friday in D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman’s attempt to disqualify opponent S. Kathryn Allen, who the incumbent accuses of submitting fraudulent voter signatures to earn a spot on the ballot.
The board plans to announce a decision Monday that will either cut short or clear the way for the most competitive race in the District’s general election.
Allen is barely hanging on after elections officials this week threw out thousands of signatures, leaving her with a margin of 101 more than the 3,000 required.
Allen, 63, a first-time candidate backed by business interests, blamed a firm she hired to help her get on the ballot for spoiling her forms with forgeries.
At Friday’s hearing, the Silverman campaign asked the board to disqualify hundreds of additional signatures submitted by people who were listed by Allen’s campaign as signature collectors but who told The Washington Post they never worked for Allen.
“The signatures that put her name on the ballot are rife with fraud,” said Joseph Gonzalez, the attorney for Silverman (I-At Large). “The evidence of forgery is overwhelming and conclusive.”
Silverman’s star witness was Leonard Howard Jr., who said he had no clue he was listed as an Allen signature collector until the Silverman campaign put out a news release accusing him and others of faking signatures.
“No sir,” Howard repeatedly answered under oath as Silverman’s attorney asked if he wrote his name and signature on the bottom of an Allen petition sheet, which is supposed to verify the person who collected the signatures.
Forging voter signatures carries penalties of up to six months in jail and $1,000 in fines.
A lawyer for Allen cast doubt on Howard’s claim.
Attorney Dara Lindenbaum showed Howard his signature on his voter registration form. He agreed it was his.
It looked similar to the one on the Allen petition sheet that he insisted was forged.
Howard maintained he had no role in the Allen campaign, except referring people he knew to a consultant looking to collect signatures for Allen.
“I have yet to physically lay eyes on Ms. Allen,” said Howard, later sparking laughter in the hearing room when he described his views on signature collecting.
“I really don’t like doing it,” he said. “It seems like an egregious task.”
Allen’s lawyer also questioned the credibility of another circulator, Tameka Lewter, who submitted an affidavit that said she didn’t collect signatures for Allen and claimed “someone is using my information.”
The signature on Lewter’s voter registration form looked like the signature on the Allen petition sheets, Lindenbaum said.
“The challengers relied on flawed affidavits and flawed testimony from these circulators who do have a reason to not tell the truth here: They are accused of possible fraud,” said Lindenbaum. “We have to take that with a very large grain of salt.”
Silverman’s lawyer offered another explanation.
“They are forgeries,” Gonzalez said. “When you forge a signature, you try to make it look similar.”
If elections officials toss out the 330 signatures on petitions that carried Howard’s signature, or some combination of them as well as the 177 signatures on petitions that carried Lewter’s signature, Allen’s candidacy would be doomed.
But Allen’s lawyer is seeking another lifeline: Asking the board to restore more than 600 signatures disqualified for paperwork reasons, rather than fraud allegations.
D.C. law requires nonresidents who gather signatures to register with the election board. A signature collector from Georgia for the Allen campaign had filled out the form for another candidate, but not for Allen.
“This formality should not disenfranchise these signatures of 638 voters who have signed this petition because they want to see Ms. Allen on the ballot,” Lindenbaum said.
Michael Bennett, the chairman of the election board, and fellow member Dionna Maria Lewis didn’t give any indication of how they’d rule. The third member, Mike Gill, was absent.
The problems with Allen’s signatures were first reported by the District Dig website.
No one offered a theory on Friday for why the correct names, addresses and phone numbers of the signature collectors would be included on petitions if they weren’t the ones collecting signatures.
But the Silverman campaign offered a theory about the origins of the forged signatures on Allen’s petitions.
Campaign officials showed the board side-by-side comparisons of signature sheets submitted by another council candidate, Marcus Goodwin, and by Allen’s campaign, and argued that signatures for Allen were copied from Goodwin’s sheets.
Both Goodwin and Allen used the firm Strategies for Change, but Goodwin told The Post he used the company for canvassing instead of signature collecting.
Khalil Thompson, who leads Strategies for Change, could not be reached by Silverman’s campaign, and he hasn’t returned repeated calls and emails seeking comment from The Post since he initially told the newspaper that Allen’s campaign didn’t retain his firm. He resigned last month as a top staff member in the D.C. Department of General Services, a job which paid $94,181 annually.
His firm also collected signatures for Silverman challengers Rustin Lewis and Traci Hughes, who dropped out after receiving what she described as hundreds of obviously forged signatures from the company.