Angela DeThomas, a Republican committeewoman in Washington, routinely examines nominating petitions, because, if there are irregularities, court challenges can derail a candidacy.
She said she noticed last March that on a petition circulated in Beaver County on behalf of Democratic state senatorial hopeful James Craig of North Strabane Township, “the handwriting was all the same.”
Where does she go after looking at copies of the pages? “It depends on the petition,” she said. She either mentions it to the candidate or to Sean Logue, attorney for the Washington County Republican Party.
“Once I passed it off, it’s up to other people,” DeThomas said this week.
According to the state’s election calendar, March 13 was the last day to file objections to a nomination petition before the May 15 primary. Republican state Sen. Camera Bartolotta of Carroll Township said she was sent some screen shots of Craig’s petitions and inquired about pursuing a challenge. Those running for state Senate need to gather at least 500 signatures, and Craig’s petitions had 73 pages with more than 1,200 signatures.
“There’s nothing wrong with having opposition. I went back to Harrisburg to work on the budget,” Bartolotta said, surmising that not enough signatures could be successfully challenged to have him removed from the primary ballot. No court challenge was filed against Craig’s candidacy.
Craig ran unopposed in May for the Democratic nomination and he faces the GOP incumbent in her Nov. 6 bid for a second, four-year term to represent all of Washington County, with the exception of Peters Township, six communities in Beaver County and all of Greene County.
But in June, “my team showed me all the pages” of Craig’s nominating petitions, Bartolotta said.
Facebook posts about signatures cropped up, and over the summer, Bartolotta said she and members of her campaign went to the homes of people whose names and addresses appeared on the nominating petitions and inquired.
“Sixty-five people ... told us these were not their signatures,” Bartolotta said Monday.
“These are issues that go far beyond of someone being pulled off a ballot.”
She called the matter “beyond the pale; insulting to the democratic process. This needs to be exposed. Voters are outraged that this went on.
“This is more than a candidate misleading the electorate. There’s a lot more to it than that.”
At the request of Philadelphia attorney Matthew H. Haverstick, who acted on behalf of Bartolotta’s campaign, Pittsburgh document examiner Michelle Dresbold reviewed Craig’s nominating petitions and compiled a seven-page report dated Aug. 31.
Dresbold’s handwriting analysis summary says, in part, “Within a reasonable degree of professional certainty, it is obvious that entire petitions, signature line after line ... have been completely filled out by one individual.”
Dresbold singled out eight petitions that, she wrote, “signature line after line ... have been completely filled out by the hands of a small group of individuals. In this process, known as a ‘round robin,’ a few individuals pass the petitions around in an attempt to deliberately disguise the fact that the signature lines were not filled out by the elector.”
State law requires that nominating petitions carry the name of the person circulating them and that they be notarized before they are filed.
Those circulating petitions in question by Republicans included the candidate, and Justin L. Young, Robin L. Young and Kierran Young, all of the same address in Pittsburgh.
Kierran Young was Craig’s campaign manager in February when Craig announced his candidacy in Washington. Craig’s campaign finance filings show Kierran Young was paid $9,800 from Jan. 2 to March 2 for consulting. Kierran Young referred comment on the petition signatures to his attorney, Chuck Pascal.
Asked if Young had spoken with law enforcement investigating signatures on petitions, Pascal said Young had not.
“If the challenged signatures were material, if they would have made a difference, the Republicans certainly would have challenged and had Mr. Craig removed from the ballot,” he continued.
“To the extent that the Republicans are implying that Mr. Craig is not legitimate on the ballot, that is simply false,” Pascal said.
Asked if the matter was a criminal one, Pascal called it “a well-timed distraction from issues that actually matter to the voters of Washington, Beaver and Greene counties.”
On Friday, Logue, the attorney representing the Washington County Republican Party, wrote to Robert Torres, acting secretary of state of the Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation, formally requesting the Department of State conduct an investigation and enclosed a copy of what he referred to as “one of the more egregiously forged petitions” filed on Craig’s behalf.
Bartolotta said she has spoken with Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone, Beaver County District Attorney David J. Lozier and Greene County District Attorney Marjorie Fox about Craig’s petitions.
“We do not comment on a matter under investigation,” Vittone said. “It’s just not fair when you do that.”
“This is an ongoing criminal investigation,” Lozier said. “I can’t talk about what we’ve done or what we plan to do until or unless a criminal complaint is filed, and I can only say what is within the scope of that criminal complaint.”
Fox did not return a call for comment.
Asked if he had been contacted by district attorneys’ offices or law enforcement, Craig said Monday, “I haven’t personally, and as far as I know, no one on my campaign or otherwise has.”
The Democratic candidate, an attorney who owns a real estate law practice, said his campaign is conducting an internal review.
“There are 900 and some (signatures) that they didn’t raise an issue with, almost double the number required. I can’t say any single signature is one way or another at this point. We haven’t concluded our internal review.
“We’re trying to get to the bottom of this just like everyone else is.”
Craig pointed to a Bartolotta campaign post on its Facebook page that dealt with his demand in late August that she release her tax returns, as he has done. The Sept. 1 post carried the designation #Foreshadowing less than a week before reports of the petition signatures surfaced.
“I didn’t wait until Halloween,” Bartolotta said. “This is not the October surprise. The moment we got proof is when we got the story out there.”