Anthony Williams’ handpicked candidate submits forged signatures to get on the ballot for At-Large Council; her co-candidate screened for forgeries and bowed out
By Jeffrey Anderson | Photographs by Jeffrey Anderson and Andy DelGiudice
The first tell was the name, address and signature of the incumbent’s legislative director on the ballot petition of a competitor in the November election for At-Large D.C. Council.
One line below, was the signature of a longtime Democratic State Party member and supporter of the same incumbent, who is being targeted by the D.C. business and political establishment in her run for a second term.
The kicker was the signatures of those same two individuals on two consecutive lines, just ten pages apart, on the same ballot petition, submitted last week by insurance company owner S. Kathryn Allen, who is running as an Independent to unseat At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman.
Allen was handpicked by former Mayor Anthony Williams and former D.C. Councilmember David Catania to take down Silverman, who is being targeted in large part because of her successful stand in support of paid family medical leave, among other progressive labor reforms.
Now, however, Silverman tells District Dig she intends to file a formal challenge by the Monday close of business deadline to possibly force Allen off the ballot, based on hundreds of pages of forged signatures gathered by paid vendors.
Which is awkward, as Williams himself was the victim of a bogus petition drive in his 2002 re-election bid for a second mayoral term that forced him to run as a write-in candidate, and resulted in a $277,000 fine against his campaign, and guilty pleas by circulators for making false statements on the forms Williams submitted.
“As the incumbent, we weren’t planning on challenging the signatures,” says Silverman, whose operation by contrast involves volunteers, and is buoyed by beer and Wiseguy Pizza. “We gather our own [signatures], so we knew we were good, and we were gonna just move on.”
Gathering signatures to qualify for the ballot is tedious and demanding, and thus has become a quadrennial cottage industry, with paid consultants, strategists and vendors offering up to $1 per signature to petition circulators who put in the legwork. Under D.C. law, a candidate needs 3,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot in a race for the At-Large seat.
The law states that circulators must be at least 18-years-old and a D.C. resident, or registered with the Board of Elections as a petition circulator who lives outside the District. Circulators also attest, under threat of a fine up to $1,000 and/or 180 days in jail, that they personally circulated the petition, witnessed the signing of the petition, and personally inquired whether the signer is a registered voter in D.C.
Once a petition is challenged, there are nine criteria that a signature must meet to be counted as valid, and it is the burden of the challenger to show, line by line, the signatures that should be tossed out. If a circulator does not meet their own requirements to gather signatures, then the signatures they collected can be thrown out as well.
Cautious candidates frequently exceed signature requirements to demonstrate broad support, but also to account for duplicate signatures, improperly documented signatures, and other signatures that get disqualified in the hurly burly of a hectic bid for office. Some call it “spoil rate,” and studies show it can be as high as 50 percent when paid circulators are involved.
Though it is Silverman who is challenging the Allen campaign, an unfortunate casualty of a paid signature gathering operation is longtime D.C. government official Traci Hughes, who dropped out of the At-Large race last week when she discovered she had been the victim of what she describes as a “fraudulent” signature drive, conducted by the same vendor Allen used.
The Dig published a Q & A with Hughes last Thursday, and within hours learned that she had dropped out of the race. In a statement, she said that when the vendor, Strategies for Change Group LLC, handed over the signatures they collected for her, she determined that “thousands of them were determined to be fraudulent by the campaign.”
In a news release, Hughes continued: “As a campaign focused on open, transparent and accountable government, the campaign could not in good [conscience] turn these signatures in to the DC Board of Elections.” (After learning that Hughes had dropped out, The Dig took the profile down from its website. In light of new developments, we have re-posted it, and you can read it here: The Greater Good)
Strategies for Change is run by Khalil Thompson, who according to District employee listings works as a management analyst and special assistant to Department of General Services Director Greer Gillis at a salary of $94,181. A copy of his resume obtained by The Dig also shows that since 2014 he has served as a special assistant for government operations at the Department of Transportation, Ward 4 Liaison for Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of Community Relations and Services, and “Talent Acquisition Liaison” for Bowser’s mayoral transition.
In early July, emails between Thompson and Hughes show, Thompson agreed with Hughes to oversee collection of the minimum 3,000 signatures she needed to get on the ballot. Thompson’s outfit, which included nine circulators, then set out to gather the signatures Hughes needed to qualify for the ballot. Before long, Hughes found him to be evasive. “Khalil dodged calls, wouldn’t answer texts,” she says. “We had to [have someone] sit outside his office to get the signatures from him.” (In a call to his DGS office Thursday, and in person later in the day, Thompson declined to comment.)
Email exchanges reviewed by The Dig show that communications went dark around July 23. Then, on August 1, Thompson posted with approximately 3,180 signatures, only 740 of which were valid, Hughes says. On August 8, Thompson sent Hughes an invoice for $1,100.
Hughes says she was livid. “I was purposeful about my decision to enter this race. It really hurts to have someone else decide for me the end of this campaign.”
Sitting on the porch of her Brookland home on Wednesday, Hughes, a former spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department, executive at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and inaugural director of the D.C. Office of Open Government, plops down 150 petition sheets Thompson delivered to her campaign, most of which contain signatures she says are either fake or not valid enough to submit to the Board.
Some of the petitions, filled out on blue sheets of heavy paper, are preposterous, she says. “From my experience in collecting signatures in the past”–Hughes was spokesperson for Ward 7 Councilman Vince Gray’s mayoral campaign in 2010–”you don’t write your address in one color ink, and your name in another. Can you imagine if I turned these in?”
She’s not kidding. One circulator who lists a home address in Temple Hills submitted two sheets with 40 signatures of residents at a single apartment building on Quebec Street, in Northwest, all supposedly collected on July 16.
The signatures show a pattern of sloppy, barely legible similarity. The same circulator, whose registration status with the BOE could not be confirmed, also submitted two sheets with 40 signatures from an apartment building on Van Street, in Southeast, on July 16 and 18, and one sheet with 20 signatures from a different Northwest address, on Van Ness Street, on July 28.
“Everyone lives at the same address,” Hughes marvels, “as if everyone is home that same day. Not very smart.”
Down at the Board of Elections a couple of hours later, Kathryn Allen’s signature sheets tell an even stranger story. The first name to jump off the page is Silverman’s legislative director, Sam Rosen-Amy. On the very next line is John Capozzi, a former D.C. Shadow Representative who served for 19 years as a member of the D.C. Democratic State Party–and a firm supporter of Silverman.
Silverman’s operation confirms right away that Rosen-Amy’s signature is fake. Capozzi answers his phone after receiving a screenshot of his signature and says he signs a lot of petitions as a matter of preference for ballot access, but that “It doesn’t look like mine.” He says his printed name looks close, and recalls signing something earlier this summer, but because the signature is dated August 7, it can’t possibly be real. “I definitely didn’t sign anything last week,” he says. “Potentially it was just copied from somewhere else.”
Any doubts of fraudulence are eliminated just 10 pages later, when signatures of both Capozzi and Rosen-Amy appear sequentially, again, with Rosen-Amy’s signature clearly forged.
Veteran journalist, former D.C. State Board of Education member, and past-president of the National Association of State Boards of Education Mary Lord’s name jumps off the page as well: The form lists the wrong address for her, while her correct address appears on a separate line for a different signer. A quick call to Lord reveals that she signed a petition at a watch party on the night of the Democratic Primary, though as with Capozzi, her signature is dated last week. “If the minimum qualification for the ballot is signatures on a petition, that’s a pretty low bar,” Lord says. “If you can’t do the minimum, why should I vote for you?”
Even lesser known residents had their signatures forged. Ronnie Jackson, of Southwest, misspells his own name in his signature, then signs another petition a few pages later with different handwriting.
By late Wednesday, the Silverman campaign has its own review underway. First, they identify the low-hanging fruit: Laura Zeilinger, Director of the Department of Human Services, for instance, says Silverman sent her a screenshot of her signature line. “Obviously in my job my signature is all over the place,” says Zeilinger. “The signature that Elissa sent me is not my own.”
Kevin Clinton, strategic advisor to the D.C. Policy Center and chief operating officer of the Federal City Council appears three times on the petitions that Allen submitted to the BOE, says Silverman, after making a courtesy call to inform him—and Williams—of her pending challenge. (Clinton did not return a call from The Dig, but according to Silverman, he confirmed for her that his signatures are fake. An Anthony Williams signature reviewed by The Dig looks suspect based on legislation he has signed over the years. He too did not return a call for this story.)
Silverman’s review includes the circulators themselves. On Thursday, her campaign says it has identified 37 circulators in all, and is zeroing in on those whose entire sheets may be subject to challenge. Allen campaign manager Kevin Parker turned in 27 sheets, according to Silverman’s campaign, which is prepared to cast a shadow of doubt on at least eight of them. (Parker says the campaign is not prepared to respond to individual signatures or petitions, but cautions that “spoil rate” is to be expected, and that it is conducting its own thorough review.)
In an interview at her campaign headquarters late Thursday, Silverman says her team is down at the BOE offices comparing petition signatures to the corresponding voter registration signatures on file. Though she has about 12 volunteers conducting the review, it could be a long weekend.
Once the challenge is filed, Allen’s campaign will be notified by BOE within 24 hours, and a 10-day rebuttal period will begin. Then the Board does its own review.
“When I first heard there had been signature fraud [in Hughes’ campaign] it put a question in my mind that it could be an issue in Allen’s,” Silverman says, pointing to statistics that say volunteer signature gathering has an authenticity rate of about 70 percent, a good 20 percentage points higher than paid operations.
“But I’ll be honest I didn’t plan to pull the trigger [on a challenge]. It just wasn’t in the plan. So we waited. When I finally took a look I realized there’s a lot of forgery.”
This isn’t Silverman’s first rodeo. She has gathered her own signatures and worked on political initiatives that can require up to 30,000 signatures. And she wonders why a candidate backed by Williams is all of a sudden in the same boat he was in back in 2002.
“This is different than when [Anthony] Williams had his signatures challenged,” says Silverman, a recovering journalist who was reporting for City Paper at the time. “That was completely made up. Here, it’s actual people at their actual addresses, but the signatures are forged.”
Whether she knocks Allen out or not, Silverman says the challenge is a matter of principle at this point. “It speaks to ethics and integrity if you hand in a bunch of fraudulent signatures,” she says. “Residents want leaders who are honest and play by the rules. This goes beyond meeting a signature requirement. To me, it speaks to the culture of D.C. government, and it’s a metaphor for how we pay contractors good money yet haven’t gotten good results.”
*This post has been updated to specify that Silverman’s ballot petition review team consists of volunteers, not staffers. And to clarify that Khalil Thompson’s salary is $94,181.