By: Rebekah Allen
District Attorney Hillar Moore III has opened an official investigation into forgeries on the petition to incorporate the proposed city of St. George.
Moore said St. George organizers reported that the people accused of the forgeries were hired by private firms retained by the group to boost the petition effort.
Moore said Monday that he received a phone call last week from Ronald Cain, who filed a formal complaint about the forging of his name on the petition.
Cain is one of six people The Advocate identified in stories last month who said their signatures were forged on the petition seeking an election to create a new city in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish.
Cain said he was disappointed St. George organizers did not file a complaint seeking an investigation as they initially suggested they would. After learning of the forgeries, St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey said last month that the group would be taking “every legal course of action available” against those responsible.
“Somebody fraudulently used our names,” said Cain, who previously worked as a fraud investigator for the state. “I gave St. George the opportunity to file the complaint after speaking to their people, and they chose not to.”
Moore said last week that St. George co-chairman Joshua Hoffpauir emailed his office with some information about the forgeries but noted they did not formally complain or seek an investigation.
The email says St. George organizers had become aware of claims that names were forged on the petition, Moore said. The email also provided the names of two witnesses associated with the forgeries who might have been involved in collecting the signatures.
Moore said both individuals worked for private companies retained to circulate the petitions.
“We voluntarily provided all of the information we have on the accused individuals for the forged signatures,” Rainey said Monday. “We will continue to work with or provide assistance to the district attorney or any law enforcement agency as they pursue this case.”
Rainey said that while the “vast majority” of the petition drive has been run by volunteers who are motivated by the desire to create a new city, the organization did hire some out-of-state “professional petition circulators.”
He said the businesses are popular in states where a petition drive can force a public vote on citizen-driven laws or amendments.
“This was a big effort,” he said of the St. George petition drive. “That’s the only way to get that many signatures normally.”
Rainey said he couldn’t comment on whether the forgeries might be linked to the private companies.
“It’s something that we hate happened, but we apologized to the individuals it happened to,” Rainey said. “But this is not something that is a reflection of the overall movement.”
The St. George petition required 17,859 signatures, and the group submitted more than 18,000 signatures in October. Only 15,165 were considered valid by the Registrar of Voters Office, which finished verifying the petition last week. The petition drive is likely the largest in state history. St. George officials have until the end of May to collect the 2,694 signatures needed to close the gap and thus allow an election to proceed. Otherwise, the petition would be voided.
Cain said he thinks all of the signatures collected by the for-profit company should be tossed.
“We don’t believe they’re on the up-and-up now, if they’re going to pay a firm to fictitiously put our names on a petition,” Cain said. The name of his wife, Beverly, also was fraudulently signed on the petition. “I wasn’t for or against this until someone used my name and my wife’s name.”
Moore said he will soon reach out to the Secretary of State’s Office asking that it consider formally investigating possible election code violations in conjunction with his office.
He said his office also will determine whether there are possible criminal charges.
Meg Casper, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said the issue doesn’t fall under their jurisdiction until an election is called, but “if he asks our office for some specific assistance, we could certainly work cooperatively if necessary.”
The sanctions, depending on whether they are election code violations or criminal, max out at five years’ jail time and a $5,000 fine.