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Alexander’s petition challenged

Elections panel hears allegation of illegality

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 2, 2012

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics will decide by Monday whether council member Yvette M. Alexander's petition to be on the primary election ballot is legally sound or if her campaign ignored election laws and imperiled her bid to retain her Ward 7 seat.

Ms. Alexander's team submitted 1,384 signatures to the elections board from registered ward voters — far above the 250 signatures needed to get on the April 3 ballot in the fiercely contested race among six Democrats.

At issue is whether a trio of Ms. Alexander's petition circulators actually witnessed all the signatures, which they attested to by signing their own names at the bottom of petition pages.

Ward 7 resident Dawn Matthews says the circulators authorized signatures that were collected by a van full of "assistants" in violation of the city elections laws.

On Thursday, she told the board that her fiance, Vincent Cooke, signed a petition for Ms. Alexander that was circulated by a young man who said he is a former felon and looking for work.

But the page submitted to the elections board was signed by circulator George B. Browne Jr., a much older man who is retired from the military, she said.

For more than two hours, board Chairman Deborah K. Nichols and members Stephen I. Danzansky and Devarieste Curry listened to testimony and questioned witnesses about their cross claims.

"This is a very serious matter," Ms. Nichols said.

The Alexander campaign's attorney, David Wilmot, a powerful D.C. lobbyist currently representing Wal-Mart's bid to put stores in Ms. Alexander's ward and elsewhere in the District, said the accusations by Ms. Matthews are hardly sufficient to deny the signatures collected by the campaign.

He said Ms. Matthews — who was assisted Thursday by Kemry Hughes, the campaign manager for Tom Brown, one of Ms. Alexander's opponents in the Democratic primary election — relied on hearsay and other indirect knowledge to reach her conclusions about how the campaign collected signatures.

Mr. Browne and another circulator, Derek Ford, testified they only submitted signatures that they personally observed.

Mr. Ford is a consultant to a lobbyist for Wal-Mart and volunteer treasurer for Ms. Alexander who city records show operates an unregistered company that received constituent-service funds at his Southeast Washington apartment, in addition to more than $9,000 paid from Ms. Alexander's account for "supplies, catering, travel, postage, petty cash and consultant."

Last year, according to documents that surfaced in a campaign finance probe of Ms. Alexander, he also received five "starter" checks drawn on Ms. Alexander's constituent-services account totaling $705 that were not properly disclosed to OCF, as required by law.

While a team run by Lancer Group consultant Harold Gist gathered signatures on Ms. Alexander's behalf, the campaign decided to discard those petition pages based on advice from counsel, Mr. Ford testified on Thursday.

Mr. Ford said there is a misconception in the District that candidates can use assistants to get signatures as long as the authorizing circulator is nearby.

He said the campaign, to be safe, threw away the pages containing about 700 signatures from assistant circulators.

From the dais, Ms. Curry noted several incomplete entries — for instance an illegible signature accompanied by the printed first name "Robert."

"Did it occur to you to either ask Robert to put his last name in or put in a legible signature?" Ms. Curry said, before pointing to another instance of sloppy record-keeping. "So again, how can the board verify who that is and if the person is a registered voter of the District?"

But math may be on Ms. Alexander's side. Unless the board finds rampant fraud in the petition process, she will likely have more than enough signatures to meet the threshold of 250 even after numerous signatures that are either incomplete or from unqualified voters are thrown out.

Mr. Ford said the campaign, "as the incumbent," set out to collect 10 times the required number of signatures.

"We wanted to show force," he told the board.

Mr. Hughes, who sat beside Ms. Matthews, testified he looked into the Alexander team's practices based on the volume of signatures that the campaign acquired over a short period of time, from mid-November to early December.

Mr. Ford and Mr. Browne said they were good at what they do, setting out in the morning to Metro stops, fast-food chains and grocery stores along Benning Road and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue. Many of the best spots were within walking distance of their homes.

"Within a mile of me, I had a large volume of signatures I could obtain," Mr. Ford said.

Ms. Nichols, the board's chairman, said it will issue a ruling to the involved parties by email before the close of business on Monday.

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