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Recalls Against Republican Senators Move Ahead

Democrats blast GOP use of paid petition circulators

Jun. 8, 2011
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Republicans have lashed out at the state Government Accountability Board (GAB) for playing politics with the planned recall elections.

Last week, the GAB asked a judge to certify recall elections for six Republicans while asking for more time to look into challenges of the recalls of three Democrats—Dave Hansen of Green Bay, Jim Holperin of Conover and Robert Wirch of Pleasant Prairie.

The judge signed off on the plan, and the GAB will make its recommendations this week.

Republican senators facing recalls this summer are Robert Cowles of Green Bay, Alberta Darling of River Hills, Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac, Dan Kapanke of La Crosse and Luther Olsen of Ripon.

Although Republicans complain that the GAB is favoring Democrats, a review of documents filed with the state shows that state elections officials are dealing with a far more complex set of challenges to the Democrats' recalls than what had been alleged in the Republicans' recalls.

Namely, the Democrats argue that lacking support among Wisconsin residents, the state Republican Party paid an out-of-state petition drive company to gather signatures for recall. Therefore, the Democrats say, the signatures that had been bought should be struck, reducing the amount of valid signatures to levels that would not trigger recalls.

$91,000 for 'Professional, Nomadic Circulators'

According to campaign finance documents filed with the GAB, the Republican Party of Wisconsin (RPW) paid Kennedy Enterprises of Colorado Springs, Colo., more than $91,000 for its work to recall Democratic senators.

It's illegal to pay individuals to register voters on a per-signature basis, since it is seen to encourage fraud and deception.

But the practice is allowed for those circulating petitions for recall elections.

The Democrats, however, argue that all of the signatures gathered by the paid circulators should be tossed out since it violates the spirit of the law.

“The RPW was provided with a small army of people recruited from across the country to descend on Wisconsin and get recall petitions filled with signatures,” wrote the Democrats' attorney, Jeremy Levinson of Friebert, Finerty & St. John, in a memo to the GAB. “These professional, nomadic circulators were paid per signature; they were involved solely to make money. And many brought with them dubious credentials, including long and colorful criminal histories that include robbery, assault, trafficking in methamphetamine and cocaine, and voter registration fraud.”

The Democrats allege that these workers filled out their petitions themselves or misrepresented the intent of the petitions to potential signers.

For example, the Democrats allege that one circulator, Sherri Ferrell, had an error rate of 35.42% in a sample of 384 signers in state Sen. Jim Holperin's northern Wisconsin district.

“Ferrell was very deliberate in her fraud,” Levinson's memo stated, “tailoring her message to each audience in order to induce them to sign. In Senate District 12, she fraudulently obtained hundreds of signatures from the Menominee tribe members by representing that the purpose of the petition was to 'support Indians,' 'support schools,' and 'support Democrats.' Almost one hundred Wisconsin residents executed affidavits or written statements evidencing that each was a victim of fraud or forgery.”

The Republicans' attorney, Eric McLeod of Michael Best & Friedrich, did not return the Shepherd's request to comment on the recalls.

But in documents filed with the GAB, McLeod argued that the GAB cannot toss out entire pages of signatures; rather, the law only allows the GAB to disqualify individual signatures that are not valid.

McLeod also blasted the Democrats' argument that the signatures gathered by the “nomadic” paid circulators are not valid.

“When all of the rhetoric has blown away, all that is left are the unremarkable allegations that a) people move from place to place, b) individuals that Senator Holperin characterizes as 'nomadic' do not have permanent homes, and c) sometimes people use nicknames,” McLeod wrote in a memo.

Darling Questions Recall Process While Raising Funds

GAB spokesman Reid Magney told the Shepherd on Monday that staff is evaluating the challenges to the recalls of the Democrats and will issue recommendations for the GAB board, which is comprised of retired judges. The board is scheduled to meet on Wednesday, June 8.

“Partisan politics had nothing to do with the request for more time,” Magney said. “It was a workload issue.”

Indeed. Even before the GAB reviews challenges filed by the senators facing recall, staff conducts two reviews of the gathered signatures, first to verify the validity of the circulators, then to determine whether individual signers live in the relevant legislative district. The GAB estimated it reviewed 200,000 signatures before asking for a deadline extension.

At the same time, the legislators to be recalled review the petitions and can challenge signatures. State law requires the GAB to presume that signatures are valid unless proven otherwise; the burden of proof rests with the legislator, not the GAB or the committee attempting to recall the official.

The six Republicans argued that their recalls should be tossed out because the initial papers setting up the recalls had been improperly filed.

The GAB dismissed all of those complaints, saying that the committees had been legally established with the agency.

The Republicans are asking a circuit court to hear their appeal.

The Republicans also challenged the validity of individual signatures, some of which the GAB agreed with. However, those challenges did not reduce the number of signatures below the overall number needed to trigger a recall election.

State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) put up a more spirited defense, arguing in a memo that the entire recall process should be scrapped since it is “devoid of any meaningful check or balance” and that it results in the “disenfranchisement” of those constituents who oppose the recall.

GAB legal counsel argued that reviews by the GAB and Darling's own challenges ensure that signatures are valid.

And it wasn't buying Darling's “disenfranchisement” argument, either.

“One could argue that the recall petition process actually provides an additional franchise because those who oppose the recall will have an additional opportunity to show his or her support for Senator Darling by voting in a recall election, if one is called,” the GAB's staff replied in a memo.

The GAB voted to allow a recall election of Darling to go forward on July 12. If she or her challenger, state Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Shorewood), must face a primary election, then the primary would be held on July 12 and the general election would be scheduled for Aug. 9.

Republicans have been attempting to field fake Democrats in the recall elections to force primaries and further delay the general recall election.

Darling, the co-chair of the powerful budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, has been busy raising funds to fight off the recall.

According to state statute, legislators targeted for recalls can raise virtually unlimited amounts of money after papers are filed to begin the recall process. However, big donors' contributions must be spent on the recall effort; the unused portions of those contributions must go to charity or be returned to the donor.

A review of campaign finance documents filed with the state shows that Darling has raised more than $200,000 since the recall process began. Two major donations—$22,500 from Fiduciary Management CEO Ted Kellner of Mequon and $20,000 from River Hills' Daniel McKeithan, president of Tamarack Petroleum—were reported.


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