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S.B. County Probes Voter Signup Firm

Thousands of allegedly flawed GOP registration forms submitted by a Riverside company are being checked. ID's are said to be lacking.

March 07, 2006|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

San Bernardino County prosecutors are investigating a signature collection firm that submitted thousands of flawed voter registration forms on behalf of the county's Republican Party, authorities said.

The district attorney's public integrity unit launched an investigation after the registrar of voters received complaints from people who said they had been improperly registered as Republicans during a recent GOP registration drive.

County voting officials said they found problems with many of the nearly 3,000 registration forms submitted by the company, including 1,800 that lacked voters' driver's license numbers or other official forms of identification, which were required by a state law this year.

The district attorney's office is also investigating whether the same political firm, John Burkett Petition Management of Riverside, was responsible for the large number of signatures declared invalid in a recent petition drive in Rialto, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Frank Vanella.

County GOP officials said they had severed ties with the owner of the firm, John Burkett, who had run the party's registration drive since January.

Burkett said Monday that the allegations seemed "impossible" and that he only recently became aware of the state law requiring official documentation numbers on the forms.

"For somebody to pop up and say 3,000 are bad ... it sounds kind of incredible," he said.

Burkett has run his company -- with more than 100 signature-gatherers in Riverside and Arizona -- for nearly two decades, contracting mainly with Republican organizations.

"I know John verifies every voter registration that comes across his desk," said his sister-in-law Barbara Burkett, who runs the firm's Arizona office. "He calls the person. He's honest like you wouldn't believe. He'd never cheat at all."

Republicans have aggressively courted voters in rapidly growing San Bernardino County.

They hold a registration edge over Democrats, 42% to 38%, and hold four of five seats on the Board of Supervisors.

Burkett said he had worked with the county GOP since 2000. His firm is paid for each voter registration form it collects, usually $3. But the San Bernardino County Republican Party recently offered $6 for each GOP voter registered in the San Bernardino and Ontario areas, said party officials.

County Registrar Kari Verjil said Burkett dropped off nearly 3,000 voter registration forms a few weeks ago, along with petitions that supported "Jessica's Law," a proposed state initiative that would bar convicted sex offenders from living in many California neighborhoods.

Voting officials immediately noticed problems.

More than half of the forms lacked an identification number, such as a driver's license number, they said.

They also discovered a few people had been registered multiple times, and received one complaint from someone who was not a U.S. citizen and couldn't understand how he could be eligible to vote.

Verjil contacted the district attorney's office and state officials. The county is sending letters to the people on the forms to see whether their registration is legitimate, she said.

Officials with the San Bernardino County GOP said they also noticed irregularities on registration forms, such as repeated names, and had contacted the registrar's office, said Adam Aleman, the executive director.

Burkett billed the party $25,000, which Aleman said would not be paid until the investigations were complete.

The district attorney's office had already been asked to look into possible improprieties in a Rialto signature drive that Burkett led.

About 4,800 of more than 5,600 signatures submitted were found to be invalid and were tossed out by election officials.

A community group called Voice United had hired Burkett's firm to promote a ballot initiative that would have required voter approval for the city to contract with the county to provide city police services.

In Riverside County, Burkett has turned in cards with missing or incomplete information and wrong addresses, said Rebecca Martine, chief deputy registrar of voters.

Residents have also complained that the person registering them incorrectly marked them as a Republican, she said.

"We'll start actually taking a closer look at all the registration cards, whether they're from him or another paid contractor, just to make sure that we're not going to face the same problem," said Riverside County Registrar Barbara Dunmore.

San Bernardino County's investigation comes after an unrelated investigation into possibly fraudulent voter registration cards in Orange County.

Election officials last week turned over 100 instances of allegedly improper voter registration to the district attorney's office in Orange County, including three dozen complaints of Democrats being signed up as Republicans.

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Times staff writers Susannah Rosenblatt and Lynn Doan contributed to this report.

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