Rights foes may be in trouble
Prosecutor looks at possible crime on repeal petitions
Cincinnati--An anti-gay group�s failed attempt to stop the city�s LGBT equal rights ordinance is now under criminal investigation by the Hamilton County prosecutor.
The probe may extend to the group�s leaders.
The ordinance, passed in March, took effect last week when Equal Rights Not Special Rights withdrew their referendum petition after finding that some of the signatures had been forged.
The investigation began August 17, the same day the Hamilton County Board of Elections was to hear a protest of the petition filed by the ordinance�s supporters.
The LGBT equality group Citizens to Restore Fairness says that 1,329 of the signatures approved in June by the Board of Elections were forged or tampered with before they were turned in.
The petition had barely squeaked by the June approval, with only two signatures above the minimum needed.
CRF�s protest and the realization that the referendum had only limited support contributed to Equal Rights Not Special Rights� decision to withdraw the petitions and keep the matter off the ballot.
ERNSR is an offshoot of the anti-gay Citizens for Community Values of suburban Sharonville, both directed by Phil Burress.
�ERNSR�s research confirmed that 18 of the 7,656 signatures submitted were forged by one of the temporary day laborers hired to help circulate the petition, thus taking the total validated signatures under the number required by law,� said Burress in a press release sent out the day of the withdrawal.
Burress said he was encouraging Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters to see if the day laborer committed any crime.
But the scope of the investigation appears to have broadened after the Board of Elections considered CRF�s protest, and likely includes ERNSR leaders.
The prosecutor�s office confirmed the investigation.
Board of Elections director John Williams said that the board �went into executive session with counsel� after they received the certified papers withdrawing the matter from the ballot.
�On advice of counsel, I can�t comment on what�s going on with the prosecutor,� said Williams, �and the board has the option to review the matter,� meaning it has not closed its own investigation of the petitions.
Hundreds of addresses altered
CRF co-chair Gary Wright said their investigation, done by attorney Jennifer Branch who also lodged the protest, indicates that the worst of the fraud was probably done by someone with more information than any day laborer would have had.
�It�s clear that it went beyond one signature-gatherer and 18 signatures,� said Wright.
According to Wright, people living outside Cincinnati signed the petitions and their addresses were changed to match voters with the same name inside the city, who did not sign. The address change was done later by a third party.
�This fraud was done by someone with access to the [county] voter file,� said Wright.
Wright said more than 1,000 letters were sent by CRF to both of the addresses with these signatures, and that more than 500 came back marked �addressee unknown� by the Postal Service. With others, the city residents said they never signed the petition.
�It�s clear that someone tampered with thousands of these signatures,� said Wright, �and had no one checked, they would have defrauded their way onto the ballot.�
A former Postal Service crime laboratory handwriting expert hired by CRF compared signatures on the petitions to those on voter registration cards and determined that many signatures were written by someone else.
�It�s so shocking to me that they thought they could get away with this,� said Wright.
�Deceptive for 14 years�
Burress also directed the 1993 initiative campaign by ERNSR that amended the city charter to void a similar equal rights ordinance. That effort also required circulating petitions.
The 1993 campaign came under scrutiny by the Ohio Elections Commission for concealing the source of its money.
That complaint was brought by Josh Thomas, who once published the newspaper Gaybeat. The investigation was closed by the commission because Thomas moved out of the state and lacked funds to continue pressing it, though it did not vindicate the campaign.
Two years ago, Burress directed the petition drive and campaign that amended Ohio�s constitution to ban same-sex marriages.
Those petition signatures were challenged in more than 50 counties, many successfully.
That campaign also came under state election commission scrutiny for hiding its financial backers, as did Burress� simultaneous but unsuccessful effort to preserve his 1993 city charter amendment.
The commission took no action on either complaint. CRF can still pursue it in court and Wright indicates he is keeping that option open.
�They have no shame,� said Wright.
�On LGBT issues they have been deceptive for 14 years,� he noted, �and they continue to be.�
ERNSR agent David Miller did not respond to requests for comment.