HELENA — A paid signature-gatherer apparently submitted some fraudulent signatures on petitions for Initiative 161 in Cascade County, the measure’s author said Thursday.
“It only takes one apple to ruin the whole barrel,” said Kurt Kephart of Billings. “I’m sick to my stomach.”
His initiative would abolish outfitter-sponsored, nonresident big game and deer combination hunting licenses.
Besides relying on volunteers, Kephart also used a temporary employee agency to hire some signature gatherers in the Great Falls area. He said he believes it was a Great Falls man hired by the temp agency who submitted some fraudulent signatures.
“I’m sure it’s an election fraud,” Kephart said. “I want him prosecuted.”
He also fears that fraudulent signatures may be enough to prevent I-161 from qualifying for the November ballot.
“It’s a make-or-break issue for us,” he said. “Bottom line, I don’t have the figures I need in Great Falls (if some are fraudulent).”
June 18 was the deadline for initiative sponsors to turn in their signatures to county election officials. To qualify for the ballot, I-161 needs 24,337 signatures of registered Montana voters, including 5 percent of the voters in 34 of the 100 state House districts. County election officials must turn in their signature counts to Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office by July 16.
Kephart said he wanted to notify the public about the potential problem with fraudulent signatures and notified Lee Newspapers on Thursday morning.
“If you’re not honest about a problem in your back yard, then the whole thing is going to be suspect,” Kephart said.
The Cascade County election office called Willie Thornley, another person hired to help Kephart about the problem with the other signature gatherer, and he informed Kephart.
Thornley was also upset, saying: “As important as I-161 is, correcting any corruption in our First Amendment right (to petition) is even more important.”
Candy Sonsteng, a Cascade County election official, said she turned the matter over to the Cascade County Attorney’s Office. Deputy County Attorney Carey Ann Shannon said she talked with election officials but has nothing to review at this time.
Kephart was distraught over what happened.
“We were very close to making this thing,” he said. “Now, even if we barely make the district numbers and the numbers of signatures, it’s suspect. The whole thing is thrown into question.”
Kephart said the same man suspected of turning in fraudulent signatures turned in 200 signatures in Great Falls two weeks ago, but only 34 qualified. Signatures are disqualified if the people aren’t registered to vote.
That’s a way higher disqualification percentage than the 28 percent to 30 percent rate in Billings, Kephart said.
That same man turned in 185 signatures to Cascade County before the deadline, and some of those are suspected of being fraudulent.
Kephart said he paid a temporary agency $15 an hour for signature gatherers, and it in turn were paid $9 an hour.
Knowingly making a false entry on a petition is a crime punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and six months in jail, said Terri Knapp, spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office.