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Citizen initiatives have been kicked off the ballot this year in record numbers, and the problems could go much deeper than invalid signatures

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Something went wrong.

That's what politicos from Tucson to Flagstaff are saying, as an unprecedented number of citizen initiatives have been kicked off this fall's ballot.

No one can remember the last time that any statewide initiative got booted after turning in its signatures. This year, we've already had three.


Petition Partners

And two more initiatives nearly suffered the same fate, only to squeak by on technicalities.

Sure, the voters lose out, but the loss to the initiatives' backers is even greater. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars readying their pet projects, only to see them rejected before prime time.

"On a scale of one to 10 on the Richter scale of Arizona history, this is a 9.5," says local political consultant Jason Rose, who's not directly involved in this year's initiative process. "There is going to be massive fallout."

So what went wrong?

People will tell you that Maricopa County is the hub of this year's petition problems. They say county officials have been pickier than usual in their verifications — and they plan to prove it in court.

But there's another possibility.

All three failed initiatives hired the same Scottsdale company to gather signatures. That company, in turn, hired subcontractors, many of them firms that travel state-to-state gathering signatures.

Some of those subs have faced allegations of serious impropriety in the past. And I've talked to three local workers who allege that the subs permitted, and sometimes even encouraged, fraud.

One whistleblower says he tried to complain to initiative backers and state regulators but says no one would listen.

Now, with initiatives failing at a shocking rate, he may well have their attention.

Arizona is one of 24 states that allow "citizen initiatives." Basically, anyone who collects enough signatures from registered voters can put a question on the statewide ballot.

It's direct democracy, with surprising results. Our state Legislature would surely never approve of medical marijuana, but the people did, twice. Recently, Arizona voters refused to ban gay marriage, raised the minimum wage, and drastically curtailed the rights of illegal immigrants. Politically, we're all over the map, and that's kind of cool.

The flip side is this: What the state's populist founders saw as a way to curb special interests has instead been a boon to them.

Just look at the initiatives proposed this fall. Ward Connerly, who's successfully led crusades against affirmative action from Michigan to California, has one on the ballot here. The payday loan industry is pushing a plan to make the Legislature back off from, yep, the payday loan industry.

There's a reason you seldom see John Q. Public pushing an initiative.

To get on the ballot in Arizona, initiatives need a whopping 153,365 valid signatures. That means hiring a company to track down registered voters; you simply can't expect volunteers to collect so many.

And though this work is ostensibly the grassroots of democracy, in reality, it can be sleazy.

We've all heard the trope comparing lawmaking to sausages — the less you know about how they're made, the more respect you have for them.

Trust me on this: It's 100 percent true when it comes to signature gathering.

"When you run a signature company, you're basically a captain of the underworld," says political consultant Rose, himself no stranger to those environs. "It's a nasty, gnarly business."

Signature-gathering companies pay an army of barely regulated freelancers anywhere from $1 to $2 per signature. If a random 5 percent sample of signatures checks out with county regulators — and if the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed — the initiative goes on the ballot.

This year, the signatures aren't checking out. Failure rates in Maricopa County are at more than 40 percent.

Of the nine initiatives attempting to make the ballot, all but two hired the same Scottsdale firm, Petition Partners LLC, to gather signatures.

And those two, the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative and Majority Rules, ended up with virtually the same workforce because the initiatives all used the same subcontractors. (The civil rights initiative now faces a lawsuit from opponents trying to get it kicked off the ballot, alleging fraud on the part of signature gatherers. But don't be deceived: Every one of the initiatives trying to make the ballot used virtually the same crew on the street level.)

Some of the subcontractors most active in Arizona this summer have been linked to improprieties in other states. And three whistleblowers tell me that serious problems occurred here.

One was brave enough to put his name on the record; the other two, given anonymity, corroborated some of his more serious allegations.

Jack Bickley gathered signatures in the Valley for 10 weeks this spring. During that time, the 30-something East Valley resident claims that he witnessed systemic fraud.

He alleges:

• Misrepresentation. Bickley says his fellow circulators frequently lied to voters about what they were signing.

• Circulator falsifications. Those circulating petitions must sign the back, verifying that they personally witnessed each signature. Bickley says that some of his coworkers routinely signed the back of petitions they did not witness. Managers, he says, encouraged the practice.

• Worst of all, Bickley alleges, piles of petitions and voter registration cards were collected but never turned in. Thousands of Arizona residents may believe they're registered to vote, Bickley says, even as their registrations gathered dust. Once the subs who'd promised payment skipped town, no one knew what to do with them.

The fraud, Bickley says, wasn't occasional or accidental. "This was not once in a while," he says. "This was systematic."

Derrick Lee, who owns the signature-gathering firm Lee Petition Management, first put me in touch with Bickley last week. Lee had heard numerous claims of fraud in this election cycle — and was troubled enough to go public with his concerns. (Once known as the "petition king of Arizona," he's admittedly lost much of his business to Petition Partners in recent years, and even ended up subcontracting with the company this year.)

So I met Bickley at a restaurant in Gilbert. To back up his claims, Bickley showed me a sheaf of signed petitions and photocopies he'd made of voter registration cards. He says he's been talking to his fellow gatherers, many of whom gave up on getting paid and destroyed petitions and registrations. These are the ones, he says, that he managed to save from the dumpster.

"Tens of thousands of signatures have been thrown out," Bickley says.

Bickley says he got involved with the petition process on a whim. Until six months ago, he says, he lived in Hawaii. But while visiting family in the Valley in February, he was approached by a man outside Wal-Mart asking him to sign a petition to lower the price of gas.

Sure, Bickley said. Who doesn't want cheaper gas?

When he looked at the petition, Bickley was stunned to read that it was actually a petition to put Ralph Nader on the ballot.

"What does this have to do with the price of gas?" he demanded.

"Hey, Ralph Nader's for legalizing hemp," the petition circulator told him. "That's an alternative fuel."

The conversation was so unnerving, Bickley says, that he decided he had to learn more. He ended up staying in the Valley and, by April, had signed up to circulate petitions.

In the next two months, he witnessed far worse than the original circulator's fairy tale about Nader. Bickley says that some of his colleagues are now submitting written statements about what they've witnessed to a Scottsdale attorney. (The attorney did not return calls for comment.)

Derrick Lee says he's heard from a half-dozen gatherers who said they are filing affidavits.

Based on what he's heard, and the petitions he's examined, Lee says that problems with this year's citizen initiatives go far beyond normal error.

"In my opinion, this is organized crime," Lee says. "I will go on the record and say that, because that's what it is."

The company at the center of the firestorm, Petition Partners, is based out of a suite in Old Town Scottsdale. The firm is owned and managed by Andrew Chavez, who started it eight years ago. (Bob Grossfeld, a veteran political consultant closely allied with the Democrats, owns a one-third share of the company.)

Chavez did not return my call until a few minutes before deadline. But his lawyer, Andrew Gordon, makes a strong case that the problem is with the county's verification process, not his client.

"What's weird this year is that — not just for Petition Partners, but the other petition-gathering companies — there's an extremely high failure rate in Maricopa County, and pretty much only in Maricopa County," Gordon says. "And our quality-control checks were all showing 75 percent validity. So why is Maricopa County coming in so much lower? That's the real question."

When Chavez finally called me Tuesday, he was harshly critical of Derrick Lee. Lee is angry, he says, because Petition Partners rejected nearly 7,000 signatures he'd collected. "He got left holding the bag," he says. "He wouldn't be doing this otherwise."

(Lee points out he started contacting New Times more than a month ago, long before the flap over signatures.)

And Chavez notes that it's not just his petitions — the two that hired other companies to gather signatures are suffering an error rate that's just as bad.

"This is not a Petition Partners problem," he says.

But I think it may be a problem involving lousy subcontractors. Everybody in town seems to have used YPM LLC, a Florida-based company owned by Mark Jacoby. And Jacoby's group is at the center of Jack Bickley's most damning allegations. (Jacoby, who has left town, did not return calls for comment by press time.)

Bickley says that Jacoby encouraged, and even expected, behavior that could well be criminal under Arizona statutes.

Jacoby, he says, had a system where a trainer would be assigned as many as six new circulators. Even though the trainer would be nowhere near the circulators while they collected signatures, he would still sign the back of their petitions, attesting that he'd personally witnessed them.

"The person who signed the back was not present when the petitions were signed," Bickley says. "How could he be? He had five or six people working under him at different spots around town."

Both Jacoby and Jenny Breslin, who owns JSM LLC, served as subcontractors on all the initiatives handled by Petition Partners. (They also contracted on the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative.)

Both Jacoby and Breslin have generated controversy in other states.

In Massachusetts in 2005, a college student told the Associated Press that Jacoby trained her in bait-and-switch techniques, including telling people they were signing for one petition while their signatures were actually captured for two. "The fraud was looked upon as a game," the student said.

A year earlier, the St. Petersburg Times linked Jacoby to a registration scam. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement began investigating, the paper wrote, after receiving allegations that as many as 4,000 voters were registered as Republicans without their consent. Jacoby was never charged.

As for Breslin, her signature-gathering company was subject to a criminal investigation in Ohio after allegations of fraudulent voter registrations, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. (Apparently, the probe was dropped without charges being filed. Breslin could not be reached for comment.) She also came under fire for allegedly turning in forged signatures in Florida, the paper reported.

These are the guys to whom Petition Partners farmed out much of its day-to-day operations in Arizona.

Attorney Gordon, who represents Petition Partners, says that Chavez has used Jacoby in the past "and he says he's been a very good subcontractor. They run quality control on Mark as well as the other contractors, and he has a very good rate."

For all the problems with this year's initiative process, backers believe they may still get on the ballot.

Recently, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Mark Aceto rejected the secretary of state's determination that the medical choice initiative was off the ballot. While the secretary of state was following the letter of the law, Judge Aceto ruled that "substantial compliance" was good enough, says Chuck Blanchard, the attorney who handled the case.

In the next week, Judge Aceto will hear similar arguments from the backers of both the governor's transportation tax initiative and the state trust lands issue.

Both are represented by Blanchard. With the same lawyer, and the same judge, it's hard to imagine the "substantial compliance" won't be good enough.

The question is whether Petition Partners will be able to hold onto the lion's share of the local signature business in the future.

Political consultant Jason Rose says that, prior to this cycle, Petition Partners enjoyed a great reputation. "The irony is that so many significant people put their eggs in one basket," he says. "That's because of the stellar work they'd done previously."

But the repercussions for this year's failures could be more serious than lost business.

Kevin Tyne, a spokesman for the secretary of state, tells me that his office has forwarded allegations of impropriety to the state attorney general. (He did not specify which companies, or individuals, are being targeted.)

Not surprisingly, Attorney General Terry Goddard wouldn't comment on specifics. But the situation has piqued his interest.

"I am amazed at the high rejection rate and very concerned about the validity of signatures," he says. "I am going to take a serious look at whether fraud has been committed."

That's good news. And after just one week poking around this, I have to say, I don't think Goddard will have to look very hard.

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