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Special prosecutor investigating possible election fraud in Rep. Scott Taylor’s race

Rep. Scott W. Taylor (R-Va.) (Steve Helber/AP)

A special prosecutor was appointed Tuesday to investigate claims that aides to Rep. Scott W. Taylor (R-Va.) illegally forged signatures to help an independent candidate get on the ballot, hoping to give their boss an edge over his Democratic challenger in the midterm elections.

Aides to Taylor, a freshman lawmaker from Virginia Beach, collected signatures for independent candidate Shaun Brown, who analysts say could siphon votes away from Taylor’s Democratic challenger, Elaine Luria.

Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, is seen as somewhat vulnerable to Luria, a first-time candidate and former Navy commander, in a district that voted for President Trump by about four points and backed Ralph Northam (D) for governor over his GOP rival in 2017.

Independent analysts at Cook Political Report say the district “leans Republican,” while the University of Virginia Center for Politics rates it a toss-up.

At least a half-dozen people — several with ties to state or local politics — have come forward in recent days to say their signatures or signatures belonging to their relatives appear on election petitions that they did not sign.

They include Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) and his wife, as well as Elizabeth “Bet” Cake, the widow of R. Stuart Cake, a longtime civil servant for the Navy, who died in April, before the date on which he is supposed to have signed the petition.

Forging information on election materials is a violation of state law.

A judge granted a request from Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin D. Stolle (R) to appoint the commonwealth’s attorney for Roanoke, Donald R. Caldwell, to the case. Stolle’s office referred questions to Caldwell, who did not respond to a request for comment.

The names of Colin Stolle’s brothers, Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle and Del. Chris Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), also appear on Brown’s petitions.

Taylor said the issue of fraudulent signatures, first reported by WHRO-FM (90.3), prompted him to fire his campaign consultant and reinforced his earlier decision to fire his campaign manager. He did not identify either by name.

“My campaign has a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate activities,” Taylor said in a statement. “Recently we became aware of the inconsistencies in a voter petition process along with everyone else.”

He said the investigation would not affect his ability to run his campaign, and he said Brown should remain on the ballot.

On Monday, the day before the special prosecutor was appointed, Taylor called the allegations of fraudulent signatures a “nothing burger” and accused the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee of disenfranchising Brown by endorsing Luria over her and other Democrats who had sought the nomination.

Brown later dropped out of the primary to run as an independent. After a mistrial last week, she is awaiting retrial in federal court on charges that she bilked the government out of public funds by inflating the number of meals her nonprofit organization served children in 2012.

Taylor said he knew that members of his staff were collecting signatures for Brown to qualify to be on the ballot but did not direct the effort. “I’m not dumb,” the congressman said in an interview. “If [Brown gets] on the ballot, it’s probably worse for Elaine than it is for me. So what? They shouldn’t have disenfranchised her.”

Spokesmen for the DCCC and the Democratic Party of Virginia said it is up to Taylor to explain what happened with the signatures.

Virginia Beach Democrats have been collecting affidavits from residents who claim their signatures were forged, 2nd District Democratic Committee chairwoman Sandra W. Brandt said. They include Ann B. Kolantis, 81, who said her first name was misspelled — with an ‘e’ at the end — on Brown’s petitions.

“Maybe someone figured, ‘This is an older woman; she doesn’t know which way is up,’ ” she said. “Or maybe they just picked my name out of a hat.”

Cake, the widow, said her husband “would have been very upset” to know that his name was put on a petition after his death. “We pride ourselves on doing things the right way,” said Cake, 71, who is retired from the Norfolk office of Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). “It’s very disappointing and sad.”

Another name on the petition belongs to Eileen Eady, 44, who moved to Las Vegas five years ago. She speculated that Taylor’s aides mined old voter records in search of names, including hers, to add to Brown’s petitions.

Davis, a state lawmaker who sought the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor last year, said he legitimately signed a petition for Brown but that his and his wife’s forged names appear elsewhere in the petitions with an incorrect address they did not give. “It’s concerning,” he said, “but the larger concern is the integrity of the political process that gets compromised.”

After Rep. Barbara Comstock in Northern Virginia, Taylor — the only freshman and the only Virginia lawmaker on the House Appropriations Committee — is considered the most vulnerable Republican in the state’s congressional delegation. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, opened a field office in his district early last year and has kept it open.

Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University, said the special prosecutor’s investigation could hurt Taylor, who has tried to carve out a brand distinct from Trump’s, while backing Trump’s agenda.

“I don’t know how you move on from this in an easy way,” Kidd said. “If this was going to be a toss-up race, this could be the difference between a close win and close loss for Scott Taylor.”