A man who worked as a signature collector for last year’s change-of-government petition drive has pleaded guilty to 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.
William Cockerham, accused of making a false statement on a required form, appeared in Arlington County Circuit Court today, was appointed an attorney, and was given a trial date of March 7, according to Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Andrew Parker.
Convicted felon and petition drive contractor Cheryl Simmons, who was indicted on the charge of voter fraud on Monday, did not appear in court today, Parker said. She’s expected to attend a hearing on Jan. 3, at which time a trial date will be set.
Simmons and Cockerham both face between one and ten years in prison and up to a $2,500 fine if convicted.
Parker could not say whether additional charges are likely against other Committee for a Better Arlington (CBA) contractors. A group that opposed the petition effort, the Coalition for Arlington Good Government, raised questions over the summer about the conduct of four petition workers, including Simmons and Cockerham.
The Coalition issued the following statement this afternoon.
This summer the Coalition for Arlington Good Government (CAGG) published a report detailing serious irregularities in the collection of signatures for the change of government petition. The report can be found at www.arlingtoncoalition.org.
Our concern, then and now, remains the integrity of Arlington elections, and protecting our community from unethical and illegal efforts that may have been organized by paid out-of-state political operatives to fabricate a local “grass roots” movement. Yesterday’s indictments appear to confirm that the Change of Government effort violated the trust of Arlington voters. We welcome the continued scrutiny by the Commonwealth Attorney’s office of the way in which this petition drive was conducted.
On April 27, Cheryl Simmons walked out of the Arlington County Detention Facility, having served 23 days in jail for a probation violation. About a month later, while still on parole, she became one of the top signature collectors for the Committee for a Better Arlington, the group formed by the police and fire unions to get a proposed change to Arlington’s form of government on the November ballot.
Simmons, who was hired by a contractor that specializes in collecting petition signatures, should have been well-known to local law enforcement, had they seen her collecting signatures on their behalf.
In 2006, Simmons was arrested for shoplifting and giving her family unauthorized discounts at the Arlington Hecht’s department store, where she worked, according to Arlington Police spokesperson Crystal Nosal. Court records show she plead guilty to felony embezzlement — a more serious charge since it was her third offense — and was sentenced to three years probation.
Late last year she was in trouble again, for passing a bad check at a check cashing store on Columbia Pike, police said. She served jail time between January and February for the charge, and in April for the probation violation, according to the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office.
Despite the rap sheet, Simmons was able to get hired by the contractor a month after her release, and apparently found the motivation to collect the third-highest number of signatures for the petition effort, with 2,916.
“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.”
Dennis said he had never met Simmons nor heard her name mentioned.
Late Wednesday, after a “concerned citizen” brought the felony charge to the attention of election officials, Arlington County Registrar Linda Lindberg disqualified the 2,214 otherwise valid signatures submitted by Simmons, according to a person familiar with the situation. Only
registered Arlington voters (correction: only individuals eligible to register to vote) are permitted to collect signatures for initiatives in the county, and as a felon Simmons would have been ineligible to vote.
Earlier this week, the anti-petition Coalition for Arlington Good Government alleged that Simmons may not have collected the now-disqualified signatures herself. Instead, CAGG said, the Arlington resident and another top signature collector, Natasha Robinson, may have signed off on petition sheets collected by out-of-town signature collectors brought in by the contractor. So far, there has only been circumstantial evidence to support the claim.
With the petition to change Arlington’s form of government heading toward near-certain defeat, the Coalition for Arlington Good Government is trying to slam the last nail in the coffin with explosive allegations of possible fraud and illegal practices by the pro-petition Committee for a Better Arlington.
CAGG, a largely Democratic group set up to oppose the change-of-government proposal, alleges that CBA used hired, out-of-state signature gatherers who were legally ineligible to circulate petitions in Arlington. Then, CAGG suggests, two individuals may have falsely signed affidavits claiming to have collected the signatures actually gathered by the out-of-town contractors. More than 6,000 signatures may be invalid as a result, CAGG says.
The two individuals in question collected a suspiciously large number of signatures in an unusual manner, according to CAGG. Other evidence, methodically laid out in a nine-page PDF file, calls into question the integrity of the affidavit portion of the petitions, some of which appear to have different handwriting for the same individual.
CAGG also questions the ethics and judgment of former CBA campaign manager Dena Kozanas. The group says Kozanas did double-duty as a notary for more than half the submitted petition sheets, in violation of the conflict-of-interest provision in the code of conduct for notaries in the state of Virginia.
ARLnow.com is awaiting comment from CBA chairman Mike Staples.
As of 2:30 this afternoon, election officials had counted 12,621 signatures, out of the 14,350 required by law to get a referendum on the ballot. Election staff are nearly finished with their “second pass” through the 761 petition sheets submitted by the Committee for a Better Arlington. A third pass is unlikely to yield a significant number of additional signatures.
Arlington County General Registrar Linda Lindberg says her staff has completed their second pass over about 700 petition pages. Since about 10,200 signatures were validated during the first pass, that means the second pass is, on average, validating 3.5 additional signatures per page. But with only 61 pages to go, it’s likely that the petition will only have about 12,900 valid signatures going into the third pass, which is expected to start Monday.
“I’d be surprised if we pick up another 100” signatures during the third pass, Lindberg said. With those 100 additional signatures, the petition will be more than 1,350 votes short. This spreadsheet shows just how improbable it would be for the petition to reach the magic 14,350 number from this point out.
It’s not clear what the next step will be for the Committee. In an phone interview last week, a CBA representative did not rule out the possibility of some sort of legal action.
“We’re going to wait for the Registrar to do their count,” the representative said. “Once they make that announcement we will proceed accordingly.”
It’s looking increasingly unlikely that the Committee for a Better Arlington will reach the mark needed to get a proposed change to Arlington’s form of government on the November ballot.
With approximately 250 pages to go during their “first pass” through the 761 petition sheets submitted, county election personnel say they’ve have counted 8,123 valid signatures. A total of 14,350 valid signatures are needed.
A “second pass” will be conducted to count signatures that could not be readily verified during the first go-round. However, if current trends hold, that process will most likely not yield enough signatures for the petition to pass.
The “rejection rate” for batches that have been fully processed is around 19 percent, according to a county source. At that rate, the petition will fall more than 1,000 signatures short.
Thursday is the deadline for change-of-government supporters to submit 14,350 signatures to the county registrar in order to get a referendum on the November ballot. According one of the contract signature collectors hired by the Committee for a Better Arlington, which wants to change Arlington’s form of county government, they have already exceeded that number.
Speaking to ARLnow.com at the Columbia Pike Farmers Market Sunday afternoon, signature collector Robert Farrell said they’ve collected about 15,000 signatures already and are trying to collect about 2,000 more by the deadline as a “cushion” to make up for signatures that might be disqualified by the registrar (due to duplicate signatures or an out-of-county address).
Officially, the Committee has declined to discuss the exact progress of its signature-gathering effort, except to express confidence that it will be successful.
Signature collectors have had to put in “a lot of legwork” and overcome a number of challenges, Ferrell said. He cited demonstrators who show up at events with “decline to sign” signs from the anti-referendum Coalition for Arlington Good Government. The sign holders are generally respectful, Ferrell said, although he has encountered “hostility” from about one in every 1,000 people he approaches.
Meanwhile, the number of places where Committee contractors and volunteers are allowed to gather signatures has become a bit more limited. The Committee used to rely heavily on collecting signatures outside Giant and Safeway stores. Ferrell said he was told a week ago that they were no longer welcome outside the stores due to unspecified complaints.
Ferrell, a self-described native Arlingtonian who returned from living elsewhere to help the petition effort, said that means he will just have to “keep on trucking” at another high-traffic location.
The League of Women Voters of Arlington is bristling at a snub by the Committee for a Better Arlington (CBA).
The Committee did not respond to the League’s repeated requests for information about the effects of CBA’s proposed change to Arlington’s form of government, prompting the League to issue a press release today saying it’s “concerned” about “the depth of the public dialogue” regarding the change.
The League, which has no official position on the change-of-government initiative, says it wants “an open discussion focusing on the practical implications of the proposed… changes that could greatly affect County residents.”
“Arlington voters have the right to be informed on issues of such important to our community,” League preisdent Nancy Tate said. “Any proposed changes to our government should be discussed in a concrete and practical manner.”
The Committee for a Better Arlington, meanwhile, responded today with a statement of their own.
Since this past winter, the Committee has met with numerous organizations and civic associations to speak with their membership about this referendum. The League of Women Voters was the only community organization to decline our request – on more than one occasion. Our focus continues to be educating voters and collecting signatures so Arlingtonians will have a choice at the ballot box this November.
The Committee’s request to speak to the League’s membership, referenced in the statement, may be granted after all.
“Should [the League] sponsor a public forum, which we may do, we will of course invite representatives from both sides of the issue, as we have indicated to the CBA,” Tate told ARLnow.com in a subsequent email.
The full statements from both groups, after the jump.
County Board Chairman Jay Fisette did not mince words when responding to a public comment about the proposed change in Arlington’s form of government at Saturday’s board meeting.
“It is certainly my view that this would be a step backwards for Arlington,” he said of the proposal. “I think the message is, if you’re asked to sign that petition, please decline to do so.”
The Committee for a Better Arlington, which is behind the petition drive to get the proposal on the ballot, is now firing back. The organization released this statement in response to Fisette’s comments:
It is sad to see the Chairman of the County Board opposing people having a say in how their government is run. We started this initiative because we believe every Arlington resident should have a voice in their government. One would hope the Chairman of the County Board would respect those rights more than anyone else. Instead of trying to dissuade voters to sign a petition that would simply give Arlingtonians the right to have a discussion about how County government works, the Chairman and the County Board should step aside and let the democratic process play out.
The proposal would actually give more power to the county board. But Fisette said giving the board the responsibly for hiring, firing or setting the salary for Arlington’s 3,500 county employees, as well as oversight over county purchasing, could open the door to corruption.
“Look in the region itself at the number of stories that come up about the influence that some elected leaders have over… public contracts for service,” Fisette said.
Members of the Arlington County Democratic Committee voted unanimously last night to oppose an effort to change Arlington’s form of government.
By a vote of 74 to zero, committee members — including members of the county board and the school board — sent the message that the party’s brass will be active and united in their opposition to the proposed change.
The change is “very bad public policy,” one committee member said.
Mike Staples, chairman of the Committee for a Better Arlington, declined to participate in what was supposed to be a debate last night. Staples’ organization is currently trying to collect more than 14,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
Democratic Committee chairman Mike Lieberman released the following statement after the vote.
Our committee had a thoughtful and thorough discussion of the many issues surrounding this petition drive. With this vote, we are eager to add ACDC’s voice to the growing chorus of organizations and Arlingtonians opposing this referendum – who are rightfully concerned about the impact this proposed referendum could have on the quality of life we have built over time in Arlington.
I’m grateful to [former Arlington county manager and change-of-government opponent Ron] Carlee for taking the time to speak with our members, who care deeply about the future of Arlington County. This is an important issue, and ACDC will work to educate voters on the significant consequences the proposed change-of-government initiative could have for Arlington County.
The reaction from the Committee for a Better Arlington, after the jump.