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Head of Signature Collection Firm Indicted on Felony Charges

by ARLnow.com April 11, 2011 at 12:20 pm 2,500 54 Comments

Less than two months after two of his employees pleaded guilty to charges stemming from last year’s change-of-government petition drive in Arlington, political strategist Shawn Wilmoth has been indicted on two felony counts of election fraud.

Wilmoth was the president of Signature Masters, the firm that was contracted to collect signatures for last year’s unsuccessful attempt to change Arlington’s form of government. The petition drive was sponsored largely by Arlington’s police and fire unions.

Two of Wilmoth’s signature collectors, Cheryl Simmons and William Cockerham, pleaded guilty to election fraud charges in February. State law specifies that petition signatures must be witnessed by someone who is at least eligible to register to vote. As convicted felons, neither Simmons nor Cockerham were eligible.

In a statement of fact entered as part of Simmons’ guilty plea, prosecutors said that Simmons told Wilmoth that she had been convicted of a felony before she was hired. Nonetheless, prosecutors say Wilmoth hired Simmons to collect signatures at a fee of $3 per signature. Later, when news reports revealed that Simmons was a felon, Wilmoth told the Washington Post that Simmons had passed a background check.

“It was an issue with the background-check company we are dealing with,” he told the paper.

Prosecutors said most of the 55 petitions pages that Simmons signed as a witness were handed to her by Wilmoth at a local Starbucks. Only a few pages, prosecutors said, contained signatures she had actually collected.

An Arlington grand jury handed down an indictment for Wilmoth on March 28. A warrant was then issued for his arrest. He was arrested Friday afternoon in Warren, Mich., according to Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Andy Parker. Lt. Eric Schulz of the Warren Police Department confirmed Wilmoth’s arrest and said he was likely being held at the nearby Macomb County Jail.

The Coalition for Arlington Good Government, which opposed last year’s referendum effort, said in a statement today that the indictments of Wilmoth, Simmons and Cockerham “further expose a troubling criminal conspiracy to commit election fraud.”

“We appreciate the diligence with which the police have pursued this investigation,” CAGG co-chair Alan Howze said in a statement. “As the true extent of the fraud, and the organized effort that went into the fraud, continues to be revealed, we believe that it will provide additional insights into how the referendum process in Arlington, and across Virginia, can be strengthened to better ensure honest, lawful dialogue among Arlingtonians on issues facing our community.”

Wilmoth will likely appear before the Arlington Circuit Court within days or several weeks, depending on whether he fights extradition.

  • Walter Scott

    Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.

  • Eponymous Coward

    Prosecutors said most of the 55 petitions pages that Simmons signed as a witness were handed to her by Wilmoth at a local Starbucks.

    Excellent. We’ve narrowed the scene of the crime down to a few hundred locations.

  • ClizzleDizzle

    Can someone explain why they want to change the form of government, and why it matters?

    • AllenB

      Republicans can’t win a seat on the board, they lose by large margins. So they want to change the playing field. The end.

      • ChrisG

        Republicans endorsed the plan, but had nothing to do with its formation. This was the Police and Firefighters unions thing.

        • AllenB

          Okay, an amendment. The process was started by a group of disgruntled folks (fire and police unions) who were upset that Ron Carlee didn’t give them everything they wanted in the budget process. That process was joined by republicans, who can’t win a seat on the board and lose by large margins.

          Better?

          • ChrisG

            I’d add that the Greens endorsed it too and several Democrats including, if I recall correctly, Delegate Patrick Hope signed the petition.

            While I helped collect signatures most local Republicans didn’t do anything more than sign the petition because it wasn’t our initiative.

    • Thes

      Really? Really? I think not.

    • Eponymous Coward

      Look at other ARL posts with the “change-of-government” tag. Here’s one below with a few perspectives. Basically, proponents advocating switching to a ward-style system with simultaneous elections instead of an at-large system with staggered elections. Obviously, proponents thought they would fare better under this plan. That included Republicans, but it was not only Republicans. Greens and public safety unions were also supportive, for example.

      http://www.arlnow.com/2010/04/22/group-fires-back-at-change-of-government-memo/

      • ClizzleDizzle

        Thanks! +1 internet for you sir/madam Coward

    • Voter

      Change of government will allow representative government and a legitimate chance at citizen participation in governing Arlington. I am a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who is appalled at the lack of true democracy in Arlington.

      The at-large voting and constant off-cycle elections causes any effort to oust an incumbent to be so diluted that incumbents remain in office until they voluntarily step down. A special election (with hardly any voters) then inserts yet another inbred crony and the cycle continues unabated. Most city/county councils throughout the U.S. stand for election all at once and also represent districts. In Arlington, there appears always to be a Board election around the corner with only 1 or 2 incumbents on the ballot. Voters can hardly get excited about an election where the vote hardly matters because the majority of incumbents are not up for election and with County-wide voting, the deck is stacked against any challenger regardless of party.

      It’s not a Democrat versus Republican issue. Rather, it is a matter of good government versus bad-government. The incumbents in Arlington cling to this archaic form of elections so that they can remain in power and unchallenged. The incumbents openly claim that the no-challenge process produces a stable government. However, elections in Cuba produce also a stable government structure — not one for the people, but one for the incumbents.

      • AllenB

        Yes, let’s get rid of an archaic (your word choice, not mine) form of government and change it to a form of government used in only three other counties in the whole state. And btw, those three counties consist mostly of cornfields and cow pastures.

      • Thes

        Had the proposed referendum passed, all five Board members would have been elected in the lowest-turnout year election, in districts that were gerrymandered by the incumbent Board members.

  • Lacy Forest

    It is a shame that the issue of the proper form of government for the county, which is really in need of a good discussion, has gotten twisted up in this set of incidents. This points more to inexperience on the part of those employing the signature collectors, and problems with the referendum process in VA, than it does to any diabolical voter fraud plan by the backers of the referendum.

    • Walter Scott

      Well, Lacy, but it depends on who knew what and when they knew it. Did the notary/campaign manager who notarized all these petitions have an inkling that many of these were not collected by the person claiming to have collected them? Don’t you think it might have been a little obvious?

      As for the form of government, that was always a smokescreen for a specific set of grievances on the part of a few union leaders. Whatever discussions should occur in Arlington have very little to do with the FORM of government and really concern the priorities of government.

      • Captain Obvious

        One has to wonder how the campaign manager didn’t know that the people whose signatures she was notarizing on hundreds of pages were not the people who collected those signatures. I hope the Commonwealth Attorney is carefully investigating her.

        • Thes

          Nearly all the voter signatures were gathered by men. But just two women “witnessed” over 1/3 of all the voter signatures collected. The campaign manager personally notarized 129 pages of those two women’s submissions. The campaign manager also notarized every one of the falsified petitions signed by Cockerham. Didn’t she know who was out in the field collecting all these signatures? Sounds like she was either a terrible campaign manager or she participated in criminal conduct. Or both.

    • Joe

      Lacy, Mike Staples and Ken Dennis own this. Staples, the head of the Arlington firefighters’ association, was front and center on this drive. That is, until evidence of the shady signature effort finally unfolded last summer.

      As for Lt. Ken Dennis, head of the Arlington Coalition of Police, he could not be to do anything but simply trust the results of a “background check” handed to him. Lt. Dennis, a trained law enforcement professional, did not even bother doing the 10 minutes of Googling that would have uncovered questions about Wilmoth’s work on other drives (in Colorado, for example).

      Let’s review, courtesy of ArlNow:
      ““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.””
      http://www.arlnow.com/2010/07/29/paroled-felon-helped-police-fire-unions-collect-signatures/

      With police officers and firefighters like these…

    • bennynojets

      I agree that there should be a discussion. I am very surprised by how afraid the opponents are of a discussion.

      I am not sure where I would come down on the issue, but I would like to hear both sides argued. On the surface, having all at-large board members seems unfair to political minorities.

      • Thes

        @Benny, there was a lengthy discussion about it last year, including several public debates (such as at the Committee of 100). The proposed “County Board Form of Government” was a terrible idea. Not enough Arlingtonians even supported it enough to go out and collect signatures. That’s why the police and firefighers’ unions had to hire out-of-state contractors to try do it for them. However, that is illegal, as we now see.

        • ChrisG

          The illegal part in all of this is that the company hired committed fraud, not that they were hired in the first place.

          • Thes

            What was illegal was hiring out-of-state people to go out into the field to collect signatures, with the intent to file them over other people’s attestations.

            It is legal to hire Arlingtonians to collect signatures (as long as they’re the ones who actually do it).

          • ChrisG

            The out of state company that was hired represented that they would use local residents to collect the signatures. If they had, there wouldn’t have been a problem, correct?

          • ChrisG

            make that local eligible residents

          • Thes

            That’s correct. If the “passionate” organizers of the change-of-government hired an out-of-state firm to hire people to collect signatures, and then provided absolutely no oversight, never asked questions and were never in the field to see who was collecting or back at the office checking who was submitting them, and were never informed about a months-long massive fraudulent and illegal effort conducted in their name, and never read the news reports or followed up on citizen complaints that non-residents were collecting the signatures — then, yes. It would not be illegal.

            But if they knew about it, and paid these guys anyway…

            Don’t forget that the campaign manager personally notarized tons of these fraudulent forms.

          • Captain Obvious

            And the campaign manager was NOT affiliated with that outside firm–she’s a local. In fact, she’s the current Chair of the Fairfax County Republican Committee’s Membership Services Committee.

  • Jim

    Since the police union hired this corrupt firm, why are the policing handling the investigation? Shouldn’t this be handled by the FBI or some authority outside of the local police.

    • Walter Scott

      With three indictments already, I’d say so far the Commonwealth Attorney’s office seems to be prosecuting it diligently.

  • Dan

    The current form of government which brought you Artisphere….need I say more ??

    • AllenB

      Well, yes, you should say more. Is our form of goverment to blame or did they just make a bad decision?

      To follow your line of reasoning, our current form of federal government brought us our current financial condition (republicans and democrats included). What change of governmet structure do you propose at the federal level – dictatorship, socialism, communism, parliamentary? SURELY you’ve thought this through, no?

      • Thes

        Our 235 year old system is pretty good, but not perfect. Keep the President and courts the way they are.

        I’d opt for a three-house Congress. House of Representatives stays as it is so you get constituent services. Senate is apportioned on nationwide party-preference basis (in other words, let the Greens, Tea Partiers, etc. have their own representatives to encourage more coalitions and allow new ideas to come forward). Get rid of the filibuster, but require a 2/3 vote for judicial confirmations — which would make laws easier to change but the “Constitution” harder to change. And a third house whose only power is to approve borrowing, and whose members are elected only by citizens under age 45 (in other words, the people who have to pay off the debt). That would make it more likely that borrowing only went to things like infrastructure and education programs that invest in our future.

        But, much as I want that, I won’t engage in a criminal conspiracy to put it suddenly on the ballot next fall.

        • borf

          Your three-house Congress sounds like a McMansion.

      • Sean

        @AllenB, have you ever had to negotiate with the County Governnment as a representative of a group or an organization in Arlington? I’m just asking because it will give better perspective on your opinions and the vitriol spewing from your keyboard.

        • AllenB

          Wow, you see vitriol in that? Disagreeing with someone’s opinion and asking them to justify what they are saying is vitriol? Interesting… me thinks you don’t know the definition of vitriol. From the Google dictionary: Cruel and bitter criticism.

          Sarcasm, sure… I have lots of that. Vitriol in these comments? Nah…. pick another SAT word, Sean.

  • Sean

    Disagreement is one thing but you have repeatedly insulted people whom I don’t believe you know personally or professionally. You also did not answer the question. That’s OK though, I didn’t really expect you to respomd any differently than you did. Thank you for confirming what I already suspected.

    I do have some other questions for you to take pot shots at from the comfort and safety of your computer…

    Did you know the County Manager has executive powers according to the County Manager Plan of government even though that person is not elected?

    How does an at-large elected Board answer to anyone unless an individual or organization represents at least 51% of the population?

    How effective are part-time elected officials when rely on the County Manager, & by extension the Human Resourses Department, to gather facts & information about governing initiatives?

    When politicians rely on bureaucrats for their fact-finding and maintain a pattern of following the recommendations of those same bureaucrats, where does the concdntration of power really sit?

    I look forward to more of your sarcasm. When you have something constructive to say that will be refreshing too.

    • AllenB

      Wow, you’re really bitter because I disagree with you. What potshots? What insults? Details please.

      There are plenty of places that hire city administrators that do have executive powers. However, our elected officials have ultimate say over anything the manager does because our elected officials can fire the manager at a moments notice. Our board approves the budget and the manager carries it out. If the board doesn’t like anything the manager is doing, they can fire her. They exercised that perogative last fall and everyone was up in arms over it.

      Each board member is elected by a majority of the voters, therefore they answer to everyone. A member in a district is the one who only answers to a minority of the voters in the County yet is supposed to have all of best interests at heart, a clear conflict.

      Nearly all politicians rely on unelected officials for their facts and findings. This is nothing new.

      If you think my disagreeing with others is tantamount to insulting them, then boy should you feel insulted right now.

      For someone with your negativity and anger at disagreement, I have nothing but sarcasm and disdain. I’ll save my vitriol though, for when it is really called for. Take a pill, or a shot, and maybe clear thinking will return to you, Sean.

      • Thes

        AllenB, you need to stop posting seconds ahead of me.

        • AllenB

          Done. I just posted seconds after you.

      • ChrisG

        Everyone was up in arms because we were lied to and then when the truth finally came out it was at a partisan political meeting.

    • Thes

      Yes. With regular democratic elections, open meetings, and FOIA, as just some examples. Not as good as full-time elected officials, which we ought to have. That’s a rhetorical question.

      Now here’s a question for you: if you had a choice between criticizing snarky blog posts and criticizing a criminal conspiracy to evade our election law, which criticism do you think would make more progress in ensuring our civil discourse in Arlington? Please remove the beam from your own eye.

    • AllenB

      Now here’s something that could be construed as slightly vitriolic. I won’t make it a direct attack on you lest arlnow take it down. But it must really suck to know that you live in a County where a clear majority of voters think your ideas have no merit. You see, your side had to resort to illegal methods of gathering signatures because no one had any interest in signing your petitions or changing a form of government that while not perfect, is clearly preferred to the alternatives. And with that, I bid your anger and disillusionment adieu.

      • Getting that marriage license in Virginia anytime soon?

        • AllenB

          If it was up to Arlington voters, yes I would be. You see, TGEoA, if you actually read and comprehended what I wrote, I said a majority of COUNTY voters. Not state. However, if you want to change this to a conversation about gay issues, for the first time a majority of the Country does agree that gays should be able to marry. And with the cases going through the courts right now, it won’t matter what your ilk thinks about gay marriage since the courts will fix it.

          Progress comes slow. We got hate crimes legislation passed and DADT is about to be repealed. Now we’re coming for marriage. And we’re going to get that too. It just takes time for your folks to literally die off.

          • haha, you’re bitter.

          • AllenB

            Not really, but thanks for your concern. Frustrated by slow progress? Sure, but all the polling data is swinging our way.. it just takes politicians a long time to catch up. I mean if someone like Dick Cheney can endorse gay marriage, the endgame is in sight.

  • Roquer

    You just KNOW this would’ve never happened if all the signatures had been ofDemocrats!

    • Actually none of this would have happened had they started the petition campaign back in the fall when they announced they were collecting signatures. Instead they waited until the beginning of summer. They could have easily cleared the 10K of valid signatures and they wouldn’t have had to hire SM

      • Thes

        The pro-petition people were also hampered by the nearly complete lack of actual support for their proposal. Thus, few volunteers, little activity. Their response — throw money at the problem — seems to have backfired.

        • They had over 30 people volunteer to help collect petitions. But the COG organizers ignored their best (and free) resource.

          • AllenB

            Wow, a whole 30 people. That’s quite a groundswell.

  • John

    The COG campaign was badly mismanaged. There was no clear benefit to voters who were mostly satisfied with the

  • John

    The COG campaign was badly mismanaged. There was no clear benefit to voters who were mostly satisfied with theIr government. The lack of volunteer gatherers and lack of oversight was just one of many misteps in the process.

  • charlie

    can we retitle this “beating a dead horse”
    THES (10 posts) and AllenB (10 posts) out of 47 — which is almost half — seem to be the only ones who care. now or ever.
    it was a bad idea. got worse. end of story. not interesting anymore.

    • AllenB

      And yet you cared enough to read it all and count the number of posts…ironic.

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