posted 10-20-2004 12:59 PM PT (US)
By JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Mary Poppins. Jeffrey Dahmer. Janet Jackson. Chad Staton.
Defiance County elections officials were confident the first three hadn't moved to their small community. But the fourth one lived there, and - in exchange for crack cocaine - tried to falsely submit the first three names and more than 100 others onto the county's voter registration rolls, police said.
Now Mr. Staton, 22, of Defiance, faces a felony charge of false registration in a case that has quickly gained national attention as part of a hotly contested presidential battle that's attracted a flurry of new voter registrations across the country - and a flurry of complaints of voter registration fraud.
Defiance County Sheriff David Westrick said that Mr. Staton was working on behalf of a Toledo woman, Georgianne Pitts, to register new voters. She, in turn, was working on behalf of the NAACP National Voter Fund, which was formed by the NAACP in 2000 to register new voters.
Sheriff Westrick said that Pitts, 41, of Toledo, admitted she gave Mr. Staton crack cocaine in lieu of cash for supplying her with completed voter registration forms. The sheriff declined to say how much crack cocaine Pitts supplied Mr. Staton, or to say whether Pitts knew that the forms Mr. Staton gave her were falsified.
"That remains under investigation," he said.
Defiance County sheriff's deputies and Toledo police searched Pitts' home on Woodland Avenue and found drug paraphernalia and voter registration forms, the sheriff said.
Pitts, who over the past two decades has been convicted of crimes ranging from domestic violence to resisting arrest, was not arrested this week. She could not be reached for comment. A month ago, she had just finished a year of probation for driving with a suspended license.
Pitts told police that she was recruited by Thaddeus J. Jackson II, who is coordinating the Toledo efforts of the NAACP Voter Fund.
Reached yesterday afternoon in Cleveland, Mr. Jackson described Pitts as a "volunteer" with the group but said he knew of no problems with her and of no voter fraud with her new-voter submissions.
"This is the first I've heard of it," he told The Blade.
He refused further comment on the case and representatives of the voter fund in Washington declined to elaborate on Pitts' involvement in the campaign.
In a statement issued late yesterday, Gregory Moore, the national executive director, said the group was "shocked" by the allegations, welcomed the investigation, and hoped it didn't hurt the reputation of other "volunteers and canvassers who have worked tirelessly to enfranchise the disenfranchised throughout the year."
Mr. Staton's 130 voter registration forms were among the 80,000 submitted to state officials by The National Voter Fund's Ohio office, based in Cleveland. The fund turned in Mr. Staton's completed forms to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, elections officials said.
Of the 130 forms submitted, county elections board director Wayne Olsson said that only six turned out to be legitimate.
Noting that the potentially new voters had listed addresses in Defiance County, Cuyahoga County elections officials sent the forms to Defiance County, where they arrived the afternoon of Oct. 8.
The package came with a small note inside from Cuyahoga County officials: Check the signatures on the cards for fraud.
Within an hour, Defiance County elections workers had deduced that the batch of 130 was mostly faked forms, said Laura Howell, the county elections board's deputy director.
"We could tell by the handwriting that many of them were written by the same person," she said. "And of course we know the streets. Defiance being a small town, many of [the forms] had streets not even in Defiance."
And so elections workers immediately began sending out letters, addressed to the people listed at those addresses, as a precaution to ensure that a Mary Poppins, a Jeffrey Dahmer, or a Janet Jackson didn't, in fact, live in Defiance County, she said.
Letters also went out to George Foreman, Brett Favre, Michael Jordan, and Dick Tracy, among others in the bundle to see if the post office would return them as undeliverable.
Letters even went out to a handful of people registered on forms with different personal identifiers but the same name: Chad Staton.
None of the Chad Statons made the cut.
In the meantime, elections officials contacted the office of Sheriff Westrick, a Republican, who began an investigation that included the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation.
Sheriff's deputies arrested Mr. Staton as he walked along a Defiance street about 8 a.m. yesterday, and issued a press release by noon that soon spread across the Internet.
The Ohio Republican Party immediately seized on the scandal. In a statement issued hours later, spokesman Jason Mauk cited the case in claiming that "the effort to steal Ohio's election is under way, and it's being driven exclusively by interest groups working to register Democrat voters."
The Ohio Democratic Party responded that they don't condone any registration fraud. Spokesman Dan Trevas argued that, of the 500,000 forms submitted for newly registered voters, "the vast, vast majority are clearly eligible voters who did the right thing."
He called it a "stretch" to link the Democratic Party and the NAACP Voter Fund to fraud because "the volunteer to the volunteer did something fraudulent."
But it's not the first complaint of fraud against the NAACP Voter Fund, which insists it is nonpartisan.
Elections officials in Lake County, just east of Cleveland, last month began investigating the group and an anti-Bush group called Americans Coming Together, or ACT Ohio, for hundreds of suspicious registration forms and absentee ballot requests.
Among them was one, submitted by the NAACP Voter Fund, for a man who'd been dead for more than two decades.
Mr. Staton's arrest is not the first time someone who is paid to collect voter registrations or petition signatures has been accusing of falsifying them - such accusations have been made across the country.
And the NAACP Voter Fund is not the first group to come under fire.
Among the others are a Republican-linked group, Voters Outreach of America, which has been accused of destroying voter-registration forms its workers had collected from Democratic voters in Nevada and Oregon