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Change-of-Government Signature Collector Pleads Guilty

by ARLnow.com February 18, 2011 at 9:52 am 2,604 43 Comments

A man who worked as a signature collector for last year’s change-of-government petition drive has pleaded guilty to voter fraud.

William Cockerham pleaded guilty in Arlington Circuit Court yesterday, the Washington Post first reported. He was accused of making false statements on a required form, a form of voter fraud.

As an ex-con, Cockerham was ineligible to sign as a witness on petition forms. Nonetheless, prosecutors say he signed off on forms that he circulated and on forms that other people circulated, which is also prohibited.

At the time, Cockerham was working for a Colorado-based firm called Signature Masters, which had been hired by Arlington’s police and firefighter associations to thousands of gather signatures in order to get a proposal to change Arlington’s form of government on the ballot. So far, the company’s managers have not been accused of criminal wrongdoing.

A second defendant in the change-of-government voter fraud case, Cheryl Simmons, has a trial date set for March 15.

  • borf

    I didn’t know the unions were backing the change of government. Wonder why.

    • Thes

      The whole change-of-government effort was manufactured by the Fire (and Police) unions as a bargaining chip in their negotiations for greater county budget resources. But so few Arlingtonians wanted to change the government that they could not even find enough volunteers to collect the signatures they needed. So the union heads decided to see if they could buy the voter initiative with union money to pay people to collect voter signatures about an issue even the collectors themselves didn’t care about (except for the $2 per signature). The result was out-of-state people collecting the signatures (often deceiving the public about what they were signing) and the “witness” signatures being illegally provided by apparently hapless people like Mr. Cockerham and Ms. Simmons. One could say greed was a factor at every level. This had little, if anything, to do about what someone thought was in the best interests of Arlington. I hope the Arlington Republicans and Greens now see how they, too, were used as pawns.

  • John Fontain

    The folks that should be in front of a judge aren’t these low level employees who were simply doing as they were told to earn minimum wage. Rather it should be the management of Signature Masters and the union officials that hired them to do this dirty work.

    • cj

      Don’t forget the campaign manager — who also notarized many of the petitions.

    • IAFF Union Member

      John, how exactly are Union officials doing “dirty work” by legally petitioning for a restructuring of local government? One of First Ammendment guarantees is the Right to Petition, and it was done by Police and Fire union members OFF DUTY, without official department insignias on. Do some research and get your facts straight before shooting off at the hip.

      • Joe

        Ken Dennis, President of the Arlington Coalition of Police, could have done a little more than simply called a provided reference. 10 minutes of Googling would have raised questions about Signature Masters’ past work.

        Alas, as Arlnow reported last summer, we were left with this:

        ““That would be a shock to me,” said police union president Ken Dennis, upon learning of Simmons’ criminal background last night. “We just hired a company that had good references… I’m disappointed that they had this person on their staff.””


      • John Fontain

        If the signature gathering was “legal” as you assert, then Cockerham and Simmons wouldn’t have been charged. The bottom line is that an agent working on behalf of the unions tried to attain a change in government through illegal means. You saying “nuh-uh” doesn’t change that fact.

  • NArl

    The change of government would have been a good thing for the county. It would make our board more responsible to the people for the bad choices they make. The county does not have Unions, Virginia is a right to work state. They do have assocations but they do not carry that muh weight. Hence the low pay for Police, Firefighters.

    • You’re correct about the terminology. I’ll change “union” to “association.”

    • local


      I believe I already explained this to you.

      “Right to work” doesn’t mean you don’t have unions. Virginia has lots of unions, including those mentioned in this story.

      Right to work means that if a union represents an employer, the contract can’t require all employees to join it. The union must get employees to join the union voluntarily.

      The right of employees to elect a union to represent them is guaranteed by federal law. A state couldn’t abridge that even if it wanted to.

      Some unions are called “associations,” (or federations, or whatever) but they are unions just like any others. Virginia’s unions have the same rights as any others. They can bargain with employers for contracts, strike (when legal), etc.

      ArlNow, you are correct in using the term “union.”

      • local

        Also, ArlNow, don’t be so quick to assume your commenters know what they’re talking about!

      • Chad

        How does something like the Teacher’s union work in VA? If you aren’t opted in to the union I feel like you are at a severe disadvantage. But I admittedly don’t know much about the union.

        • local

          The teachers would hold an election to decide whether they want a union to represent them. If successful, the union would negotiate a contract with the school system. Individual teachers could join the union and pay dues and elect officers of the union, etc. but the “right to work” law would mean they couldn’t be forced to join the union in order to get or keep their job as a teacher. The contract would apply to all teachers though. So you’re not really at a big disadvantage. You get the benefits of the contract without paying dues. That’s why unions call those who don’t join “freeloaders.” They don’t have a voice in what is negotiated in the contract though.

          • local

            Oh, also, non-members wouldn’t get legal representation by the union if they had some kind of job issue that required it.

            And NArl, please read my post above and learn what “right to work” really means.

  • Bluemont John

    It’s too bad this happened. John Fontain is right–this guy was just doing a job. He shouldn’t have been out collecting–but you know, it’s not like he was trying to vote or carry a gun. The onus is on that stupid company that hired him to vet its gatherers for disqualifying background info. (Unless he lied and never mentioned his felony.)

    I have mixed feelings on unions, but I’m very disappointed that this issue of county governance couldn’t even be put to a vote of the citizenry. The Board isn’t really accountable due to the at-large electorate and staggered elections. And they rely too much on the staff, who have their own biased ideas about how things should run.

    • local

      It’s a stretch to say the board isn’t accountable just because of at-large elections.

      • Dan

        “It’s a stretch to say the board isn’t accountable just because of at-large elections”

        Maybe by a bit but not by much…they sure don’t act as though they have much fear of losing office.

        And how about some fines at least for the “grocery cart shover” on the other side of the issue ??

      • Bluemont John

        I don’t think it’s a stretch. An at-large election does not guarantee that everyone in the community is represented; members could all be from the same neighborhood or section of the represented area. In fact, jurisdictions in other states have been sued in order to have single-member districts, because at-large districts were found to exclude large portions of the electorate.

        On a more basic level: If you have a problem with something going on in your neighborhood, whom can you complain to? You can pick a random Board member, but which one are you going to expect to serve the needs of your neighborhood, lest you vote them out of office? Theoretically, they all should–but come on. If every area had a representative (like DC), you can bet they’d be very responsive to the wants of their constituents.

        • local

          “An at-large election does not guarantee that everyone in the community is represented; members could all be from the same neighborhood or section of the represented area.”

          But you could say that about ANY election. Every electoral district or jurisdiction combines people in a way that produces a majority and a minority.

          I actually agree that with multiple members of a government body like the board, it makes sense to divide them up into districts to improve representation. I’m just saying that just because they are elected one way and not another doesn’t make the unaccountable. They are quite accountable, to the whole county, every election year.

          • Greg

            Not really. The ACDC largely will prevent them from being challenged by another Dem. Some large portion of the County is reflexively voting Dem. You do the math.

            They are accountable in a theoretic sense. But it would be a very unusual circumstance that would see a Board member voted out of office.

            For the record, I don’t think districts are a good idea either.

          • local

            The ACDC does not choose Democratic candidates. Democratic voters do.

            The voters decide.

          • Bluemont John

            “For the record, I don’t think districts are a good idea either.” Then what system would you be in favor of?

          • Just the Facts

            “Some large portion of the County is reflexively voting Dem.”

            Call me naive, but I continue to be shocked at how cavalierly some commenters discount free, fair and legitimate elections. I guess if an election (make that years’ worth of electionS) doesn’t go your way, you’ll find some crazy reason to cast doubt on it.

            Did you ever consider that a large portion of the County is repeatedly voting for Board members because it supports them? Did you ever consider that at least one Board member is up for voter approval every year? Doesn’t get more accountable than that.

            Finally, where is this massive displeasure with the workings of the County Board and why didn’t it manifest itself in the COG petition or any of the annual Board elections? The truth is it just doesn’t exist. The residents of Arlington are, to a large degree, more than satisfied with the County and the way it is governed.

          • Bluemont John

            “But you could say that about ANY election.”

            Not really. The current setup is akin to having all US senators elected by direct popular vote from all states–so that you’d naturally have most of them coming from the most populous states instead of two per each. Sure, there will always be a minority on the losing side, but what we have now are large swaths of like-minded voters whose views are not being represented.

            Oddly, most of the Board members I think live in very expensive SFHs near the Metro in N. Arl. If you go by geography, neither a huge chunk of S. Arlington (if any–can’t recall) nor a huge chunk of N. Arl. is represented–just the R-B corridor.

            You would think this might bode well for the oldish, staid, SFH suburbanoids like me. And yet the Board constantly pushes policies that most such residents oppose (accessory dwelling units, limited parking, more condos, more bars with later hours, higher taxes, etc.). That viewpoint (which I oppose) deserves a voice–but not the entire voice. I think each neighborhood should have its own representative, and then an elected mayor.

          • local

            But the Senators are elected statewide! If we follow this logic, we should divide every state into to different Senate districts.

            I understand the point about representation. The more you break it down geographically, the more you MIGHT improve representation (though you could make it worse, depending on how you draw the lines). I just objected to the idea that a board that was elected by the people was somehow “unaccountable” because it’s elected at large. That’s all.

          • Bluemont John

            I get what you’re saying; you can’t have 500 mini-districts to ensure every nuance of voter interest gets a fair shake. And no, it’s not like the Boardsters are political appointees; theoretically, they could be voted out. But I think their John Gotti-like resilience in the face of elections is mostly a product of staggered elections and the at-large makeup.

          • local

            You’re using more colorful language to describe the simple fact that board members are popular with the majority of voters of Arlington.

  • el fat kid

    kind of crazy how hard the county has gone after these folks. I get that what they did was wrong and some tom-foolery occured, but at some pt it starts looking like political retribution gone too far.

    • Wayne Kubicki

      “Political retribution”? Maybe, and we’ll never know for sure if that was a factor here or not.

      OTOH, the Registrar’s Office had to undertake a tremendous amount of work in reviewing the petitions – work that perhaps could have been avoided if the petitions signed by ineligible petition takers had not been submitted in the first place. The representations made by the petition takers when they sign the form should, at the end of the day, mean something. At bottom, I think these prosecutions are justified.

    • local

      You’re accusing the Commonwealth’s Attorney of pursuing a criminal case based on politics? That’s a very serious charge.

      • el fat kid

        hah. happens all the time and at much higher levels than some local commonwealth’s attorney. It doesn’t take some big conspiracy, secret code or complex payment scheme to make political decisions. This is a more of a ‘don’t f— with us’ kind of thing by the people currently in control. Impossible to prove, impossible to disprove — i’ll wait for sentencing before solidifying my suspicion, but so far everything seems to be way trumped up. Funny thing is usually it’s the Dem establishment or some right wing millionaire facing charges not some low-level schmuck trying to make a buck.

        You really think that if he was on their side of the issue this wouldn’t have been dismissed as an unfortunate oversight which “we’ll do everything we can too make sure it never happens again” ? This kind of shit happens all the time, especially on low level field organizing. The intent of the deception wasn’t to commit voter fraud or part of some grand scheme to topple democracy, it was just a guy trying to make some extra money. He most likely had idea what was going on.

        Robocalling 100,000 people and telling them to vote on the wrong day, distributing fake literature and failing to accurately report a campaign’s finances are serious incidents of voter fraud… this is nothing. Give him 10hrs of community service and stop wasting your time and my money with all this court bullshit.

        • local

          Right. Happens all the time.

          It’s possible grounds for impeachment, disbarment, and even criminal prosecution. You better go file some complaints immediately, or back off your wild claims.

        • Just the Facts

          I don’t put much stock in an argument that includes an admission that it is “impossible to prove”.

        • el fat kid

          ARLNOW is a little heavy with the censor button tonight so i’ll try to rephrase…

          @local – do you work for the county? county party?

          How is it out of the realm of possibilities for the prosecutor to be influenced by his political relationships? This guy was on the opposing side of a battle with several people whom Trodden has a close political relationship. Trodden/Stamos have cut checks to and received checks from several people with big interest in scaring off the police and firefighters from making another attempt at getting this on the ballot.

          In my years of experience with campaigns and campaign law, I don’t recall a low-level organizer ever being pursued this vigorously. At most this guy deserves a fine and/or community service, not some politically motivated, aggressive pursuit of criminal charges.

          @just the facts – why not? You ever follow the US Attorney scandal? It’s probably the most public and pursued case of political influence in official action in the last decade. It was very clear that several improper and most likely illegal action took place but it could never be proven. How are you going to prove the contents of private conversation?

          I’m not saying anyone did anything wrong or illegal but there is reason to be suspicious of how this case is being handled given the circumstances.

          • Thes

            No one has been sentenced in this case. In fact it appears that not even everyone has been charged. It is quite possible that the hapless Mr. Cockerham, despite having just admitted to over 70 instances of felony conduct, will in fact actually only get only “a fine and/or community service” (and perhaps a suspended jail sentence) as his punishment for the single criminal conviction the Commonwealth Attorney’s office has chosen to obtain. Seems to me the CA’s office is being deliberate, careful and restrained.

          • local

            No, don’t work for the county or whatever.

            “The realm of possibility” is one thing. Making an accusation is quite another.

  • Captain Obvious

    From the WaPo article:

    “Cockerham was hired by Shawn Wilmoth, president of Signature Masters, who was contracted to train local residents to collect 12,000 signatures…. Cockerham went with Wilmoth to notarize 58 petition pages June 28, Trodden said.

    “‘Approximately four of these sheets contained voter signatures that the defendant had obtained himself. Some were circulated by other persons at the same locations as the defendant. A large number of the remaining pages, however, had been given to him by Wilmoth. The defendant had not witnessed voters sign those petitions,’ Trodden said.”

    The CA is handling this in the same way they handle every crime: They are investigating the low-level people they know about so that they can find out more about who was really orchestrating the crime. The defendant here clearly gave the CA important information in exchange for his plea deal.

  • Wayne Kubicki

    Not accusing the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office of anything at all – in fact, once the problems with the legal status of some of the petition takers became known, that Office did their job.

    Where did politics MAYBE enter into all of this? As I recall, ARLnow reported that a “concerned citizen” brought this issue to the attention of the Registrar, who then acted on the information and disqualified large batches of otherwise valid voter signatures. What was the “concerned citizen’s” motivation? Dunno! And regardless of their motivation, was he/she entitled to do so? Absolutely.

    • local


      My comment was directed toward el fat kid and his thing about “political retribution.”

  • Chris Zymmerman

    You all think you can just buy signatures and out the board members? Freakin’ Yupublicans think everything is for sale. We have one of the best local govt’s in the Country and you want to go buy it, take it over, and run it into the ground just like Bush spent our surplus for a war that was about oil. The most patriotic thing you can do is ride the ART bus and not a single person car. All these “change of government” people want a change but apparently aren’t willing to stand on the street and get signatures… only hire companies and ex-cons to do their dirty work. Lazy and sad. Go Nats!

  • SouthArlJD

    I remember being approached by someone at a shopping center trying to get me to sign this petition. Guy was really cagey. I watched him get a couple of people to sign the petition when it was clear they really didn’t understand what it was for. I talked to this person and he went whole hog into the “we’re not being represented because we have at-large seats” argument, but when I pursued the discussion he began to complain that the County Board was too receptive to the needs of immigrants and poor people, that he thought it was too accommodating to people from Southside (read the poorer classes), that there were too many programs for everyone in the county. What it boiled down to was that he was a conservative Republican from Northside and it was pissing him off to have to pay taxes, the benefits of which are shared among everyone in the County. When I said bluntly that that’s what I thought he was trying to do he agreed with me. This was at a Lee Highway Giant, so he didn’t realize that I’m from Southside or perhaps he wouldn’t have been so plain-spoken about the issue.

  • Concerned Citizen

    I AM the “Concerned Citizen” who brought Ms. Simmon’s conviction to the attention of the Registrar. Let me be clear. I had no political motivation other than a strong respect for the law and the election process. In fact, I had deliberately sat out the whole petition hoopla (even though I thought the change of government plan would be bad for ALL Arlingtonians) because I simply trust the voters to sort out the chaff and do their jobs.
    I read the press release put out by the anti-petition folks alleging irregularies. Preferring to do anything other than my actual work that day, I simply ran her name through the publicly available Virginia Judicial System, where the information on her various convictions was publicly available to ANYONE with a computer and internet. I felt I had a duty to bring it to the Registrar’s attention.

    • Thes

      The Registrar, in turn, notified the Commonwealth Attorney’s office.


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