The apparent suicide of a longtime professional signature gatherer threatens to blow wide open the heretofore hidden world of organized petition fraud in Washington state.
Spokane based Dennis O’Shea had worked for years supervising crews of paid signature gatherers for a number of contractors, most recently Citizens Solutions, the Lacey WA firm that gathers signatures for Tim Eyman’s initiatives. Documented back in 2003 making false statements to signers about the initiative he was hawking, O’Shea had years to learn the ins and outs of the sometimes shady signature gathering business. So when detectives reportedly found his body along with a box of documents labeled to the attention of the police, they had reason to take notice.
Next month, partially as a result of the investigation stemming from O’Shea’s death, a mother and daughter signature gathering team will face charges on 45 counts of forging signatures on petitions for Eyman’s 2008 Initiative 985. And judging from both the suspicious circumstances, and the well documented history of petition fraud in other states, there is good reason to suspect that this case might represent only the tip of the iceberg.
According to court documents recently acquired by the Ballot Initiative Network, Theresa Dedeaux came under investigation in June 2008 after two petition sheets were turned over to Spokane County Elections officers, and subsequently the Secretary of State. An SOS official determined that 37 of the 40 signatures on the sheets did not match the signatures on file, and further forensic work by the Washington State Patrol determined a number of these to be forgeries. Affidavits were sent out to all 40 of the alleged signers, and all 29 of the affidavits returned confirmed that theirs was not the signature on the petition.
When confronted with this evidence by the WSP, Dedeaux made a statement to investigators implicating her supervisor: “Everything we did was at the direction of Dennis O’Shea.” When asked what she meant by “we,” Dedeaux went on to implicate her daughter Mercedes, “My daughter did it too.”
While details remain sketchy, it appears that O’Shea committed suicide sometime during the investigation, and according to sources, he left behind a box of documents directed toward the attention of the police, that included copies of several petition sheets collected by Mercedes Dedeaux. Investigators sent affidavits to 34 alleged signers whose signatures were suspected of being forged; all 29 of the returned affidavits attested that the signature was not authentic.
What else was in the box of documents O’Shea left behind? I have no idea, and I have no idea whether it is currently being investigated by the Spokane County Sheriff, the WSP or the SOS. What I do know, is that O’Shea thought it important enough to set aside for investigators as he prepared to take his own life. And I do know that the kind of fraud perpetrated by the Dedeauxs has proven to be common place in other initiative states, and that there has never been any reason to assume that Washington’s signature gatherers are uniquely clean, especially given the laxness of the laws and procedures regulating our initiative process.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” opponents of initiative reform like to argue, pointing to the absence of evidence of signature fraud in Washington state, but the truth is, we can’t possibly uncover evidence we’re not looking for, and lacking the tools to track signatures to the paid canvassers who gathered them, even evidence of fraud would be unlikely to incriminate the perpetrators.
To that end, there are two bills that are still alive in the current legislative session that attempt to address this issue. The first is HB 2614, which merely closes a loophole created via an opinion by state Attorney General Rob McKenna. Petitions are currently required to contain a declaration identifying the signature gatherer, but bizarrely, McKenna has advised the SOS that the statute does not require the signature gatherer to sign it. HB 2614 would clarify the existing law, explicitly requiring that the signature gatherer sign the declaration before the petition is filed with the SOS.
The second bill, SB 6449, is much more sweeping. In addition to closing the loophole above, SB 6449 would require that paid signature gatherers register with the PDC, and provide evidence of said registration while gathering signatures. Individuals convicted of fraud, forgery, identity theft, elections violations and sexual offenses would be denied registration, and permanently ineligible to work as paid signature gatherers. Volunteer signature gatherers would be exempt from such requirements.
Both of these bills represent prudent reforms that have been successfully implemented in other states with a history of signature fraud and other abuses. As it stands now, nothing would stop the Dedeauxs from working again as paid signature gatherers. Likewise, convicted identity thieves and sex offenders could be out there in front of the Safeway as I type, collecting the addresses and signatures of prospective victims.
Last year the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center ranked Washington’s initiative laws some of the most permissive in the nation, handing us a big, fat “F” in its nationwide Ballot Integrity Report Card. And yet this year, like in past sessions, the smart money is on the Legislature chickening out of addressing these long overdue reforms.
Opponents insist that there is no evidence of fraud, but the Dedeaux case proves otherwise, while the box of documents O’Shea left behind almost certainly contains additional incriminating evidence. Now is the time for the Legislature to act to protect the integrity of our initiative process.