Charges against 8 Bison FB players expected in voter fraud case that kills two ballot measures
Eight current North Dakota State University football players and one former player are among 10 people expected to be charged with voter fraud tied to two attempts to place measures on this fall's general election ballot.
Backers of the measures pulled from the ballot expressed sadness Tuesday.
"We're extremely disappointed that this alleged fraud occurred. We had no desires to be on the ballot in any other than a pure and honest way," said Stephen Adair, chairman of the committee backing a constitutional initiative that, had it passed, would have created a land and water conservation fund.
Steven Zaiser, chairman of the committee behind an initiative relating to legalizing marijuana for medical use, said Tuesday that he was still looking into details of the allegations and could not comment at length regarding them.
However, Zaiser said he was disappointed that an effort more than two years in the making and which he said sought to provide relief to chronic pain sufferers had apparently gone up in flames.
Four of the eight suspects in the voter fraud case who are Bison players are starters on the defending national championship football team. In a news conference Tuesday, NDSU head coach Craig Bohl said all eight will have their day in court. No suspensions were handed out Tuesday.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Secretary of State Al Jaeger identified the individuals who will face charges as: Aireal Boyd, Josh Colville, Josh Gatlin, Demitrius Gray, Jennifer Krahn, Samuel Ojuri, Brendin Pierre, Antonio Rodgers, Bryan Shepherd and Marcus Williams.
Williams, Pierre, Colville, Ojuri, Boyd, Rodgers, Shepherd and Gray are all current members of the Bison team. Gatlin is a former player.
Suspects named in the case face charges of facilitation of voter fraud or filing a false statement, according to Stenehjem and Jaeger, who said the Cass County state's attorney's office will handle the cases.
Assistant Cass County State's Attorney Cherie Clark said charges had not been filed as of Tuesday afternoon, and she said she could not discuss the cases.
According to the attorney general's office, the expected charges are Class A misdemeanors. A conviction could be punished by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
According a statement released by Jaeger and Stenehjem, criminal complaints claim that all circulators of a petition are required to sign an affidavit stating they witnessed all the signatures and that all signatures are genuine.
An investigation by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation found that some statements submitted to the state were not correct and many of the individuals whose signatures appeared on the petitions had not signed them.
According to the statement, investigators believe the forged signature names were lifted from telephone directories and cellphone contact lists of the circulators. Some were simply made up.
Letters sent from Jaeger's office to officials backing the initiated measures state that a number of individuals who circulated petitions are not willing to reaffirm their signatures to affidavits they submitted.
The list includes names of individuals Jaeger and Stenehjem said will be charged, as well as names of individuals who, as of Tuesday, were not listed as suspects. The investigation is ongoing and additional charges against other individuals are possible, according to the statement released by Jaeger and Stenehjem.
Petition circulators who are no longer willing to affirm their affidavits and who weren't named Tuesday as suspects include D.J. McNorton and Don Carter, two former NDSU football players, and Lucas Albers, who is currently a member of the team.
An individual named William Brown was also listed by Jaeger as a petition circulator who had signatures rejected. Brown's name was not on the list of suspects released Tuesday.
Because of rejected petitions, both ballot initiatives fell short of the signatures they needed to be placed on the ballot in the November general election.
The medical marijuana initiative needed 13,452 signatures and 20,092 were submitted. It ended up being more than 900 signatures short, according to Jaeger's office.
The conservation fund, as a proposed constitutional amendment, required 26,904 signatures, and 37,785 were submitted. After losing the signatures the investigation found invalid, the petition drive came up 7,938 votes short, according to Jaeger's office.
"Petition fraud is an affront to the election process and to all citizens, and particularly to those who legitimately signed the petitions hoping to have these measures placed on the ballot. That's why it's essential that these allegations are investigated and violations prosecuted," Stenehjem said in a written statement.
Jaeger said a petition has been disqualified because of signature fraud just one other time in his 19-plus years in office.
He said such misdeeds lead to good signatures being thrown out with the bad.
"There's a lot of people that had interest in this and signed it legitimately, and I'm sure they're disappointed," he said.
Jaeger, a Republican, said political considerations played no role in rejecting the two left-leaning measures - or any ballot measure his office evaluates.
"We do our job," he said. "It doesn't make any difference what the subject is or what my personal opinion is; they're all treated the same way."
Zaiser said it was his understanding that backers of the medical marijuana initiative hired people to circulate petitions, adding that workers were paid on an hourly basis, not by the number of signatures collected. Petition advocates spent about $45,000 to hire workers to collect signatures, The Associated Press reported last month.
Adair said the group behind the conservation fund initiative hired a company out of Iowa - Terra Strategies - to coordinate its petition drive.
He said workers were to be paid $9 an hour.
Adair added that initiative officials are looking into the possibility of getting a refund of the approximately $140,000 paid to Terra Strategies.
He said that based on information released by state officials, initiative backers have accepted the decision to pull the conservation fund measure from the ballot.
Zaiser said it had not been decided whether an effort would be made to fight the decision to pull the medical marijuana initiative from the ballot.
A phone call to Terra Strategies was not returned Tuesday.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555.
Reporters Marino Eccher and Jeff Kolpack contributed to this report.