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March 9, 2007

Petitioners indicted for fake signatures

Critics say anti-gay leaders altered addresses, but weren’t charged

Cincinnati--A Hamilton County grand jury has indicted two day laborers for faking signatures on petitions to force a vote on Cincinnati’s human rights ordinance last summer.

But LGBT activists say the leaders of the petition drive are also responsible, and they have been let off the hook.

Lois Mingo, 47, and Precilla Ward, 32, both of Cincinnati, were each charged with felony election falsification on March 1. Ward was also charged with two counts of putting false signatures on election documents. Each count is punishable by up to a year in prison.

The referendum campaign for the newly-enacted ordinance was halted in August after petitions were found to have fake signatures, including those of Fidel Castro and Cincinnati Reds owner Bob Castellini.

Mingo, Ward, and other petition circulators were paid by the signature as well as by the hour. Bonuses were paid based on the number of signatures.

But the LGBT rights group Equality Cincinnati pointed out that no one had been charged for changing the addresses of voters who live outside the city to match ones with the same names who live inside its limits.

“The prosecutor failed to indict anyone for altering over 1,000 addresses without voters’ permission while the petitions were in the custody of Ohio State Rep. Tom Brinkman,” the group said in a statement.

Brinkman, R-Cincinnati, headed the unsuccessful petition effort for Equal Rights Not Special Rights, an offshoot of the anti-gay Citizens for Community Values of suburban Sharonville, headed by Phil Burress. The group was trying to force a vote on the ordinance because it added sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s non-discrimination laws.

Mingo and Ward, along with other signature gatherers, were hired by Brinkman through Labor Ready, which provides mostly unskilled labor on a day-to-day basis, paying its workers each day.

Brinkman was paid $40,000 by ERNSR to run the campaign, with another $20,000 if it had been successful.

The petitions had been presented in June to the Hamilton County Board of Elections, which confirmed only two more than the required 7,654. They were withdrawn by Burress in August when he discovered the alterations.

At the request of the elections board, County Prosecutor Joe Deters, also a Republican, began investigating in August when Citizens to Restore Fairness protested 1,329 signatures they said were tampered with before they were turned in.

Citizens to Restore Fairness, now part of Equality Cincinnati, supported the new ordinance after campaigning to repeal Charter Article 12 which had prohibited it.

CRF attorney Jennifer Branch noticed the address alterations last year. She said that they were done by someone with more information than any day laborer would possess. Matching out-of-city petition signatures to the addresses of city voters probably required access to county voter files, she noted.

Political campaigns often purchase county voter records on computer disk from elections boards.

CRF president Gary Wright said the group sent more than 1,000 letters to both of the addresses with these signatures, and more than 500 came back marked “addressee unknown.” With others, the city residents said they never signed the petition.

A former Postal Service crime lab handwriting expert hired by CRF also compared petition signatures to voter registration cards and determined that many were written by someone else.

CCV and ERNSR vice president David Miller told the Christian newspaper Citizen USA last year that “a pro-homosexual mole got in and tried to sabotage these petitions.”

ERNSR thought changes were legal

Prosecutor Deters noted the address changes in a letter to the Board of Elections on the same day Mingo and Ward were indicted. He agreed with an ERNSR lawyer who said the group believed the alterations were legal, based on an earlier case.

“During this investigation, it became apparent that the committee circulating the petition believed that it was permitted to strike out addresses” on petitions, Deters wrote, “and replace the struck through addresses with those on file with the Board of Elections.”

“This belief stemmed from conversations members of the committee had with an attorney and is based on that attorney’s reading of State ex rel. Jeffries v. Ryan,” Deters continued.

That 1969 Franklin County case involved petitions where voters had used ditto marks in the date column, and the dates were inserted later by someone else.

Branch responded by pointing out the differences in the two situations.

“[ERNSR] did not just fill in correct addresses,” Branch said. “They changed the identities of voters. That’s fraudulent.”

“We found that someone crossed out the address for a man who lived in Mariemont and wrote in the Hyde Park address of someone with a similar name,” Branch said. “We also found that someone crossed off the address of a woman in Cleves and wrote in the Cincinnati address of a woman with the same name.”

“By not prosecuting these illegal actions, Deters is giving someone a free pass,” Branch said.

Ordinance has saved jobs

In a March 1 letter to the mayor and city councilors, gay attorney Scott Knox explains how the ordinance saved the jobs of two of his clients--in both cases, before anyone had to file a complaint or go to court.

“Most people want to obey the law, so when they become aware of it they come into compliance without filing charges,” wrote Knox.

According to Knox, the first matter involved a transgender bank employee, whose employer thought they could discipline her for dressing according to her gender identity.

“After I sent the HR person a copy of the ordinance,” wrote Knox, “Lee was told that she could dress in whatever professional way she wished without repercussions and that the employer would update its policy.”

The second involved a young man working in building maintenance whose co-workers discovered he is gay and took offense. Soon after, his supervisor fired him, even though his work was good.

Knox said because of the ordinance, he was able to reach a financial settlement with the employer that allowed the man to keep his apartment until he found another job.

“As with most regulations,” wrote Knox, “the ordinance was effective without any claim ever having been filed. These wrongs were righted only because there was the power of the ordinance behind my clients, saying that within the city of Cincinnati, employers cannot discriminate against employees due to their sexual orientation or transgendered status.”




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