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Prosecutors: Petition fraud came with quotas, bonuses

FARGO -- Fifteen people were charged Friday with violating North Dakota election law, many of them telling investigators they forged names on petitions they circulated in order to meet quotas and to achieve bonus pay.

One defendant told an investigator every signature he turned in was forged. Thirteen of the 15 defendants are either current or former players on the North Dakota State University football team.

All 15 charged in Cass County District Court are accused of violating state law by signing a name other than that person's own name to an election petition, a misdemeanor.

The charges are tied to petition drives involving two initiated measures now barred from the November election ballot. The fraud allegations first came to light earlier this week, as state officials named 10 of the suspects charged in a news release Tuesday.

According to the Cass County State's Attorney's Office, the individuals charged are:

Lucas Albers, Aireal Boyd, Don Carter, Joshua Colville, Joshua Gatlin, Demetrius Gray, Darren (D.J.) McNorton, Sam Ojuri, Brendin Pierre, Antonio Rodgers, Bryan Shepherd, Charles (C.J.) Smith, Marcus Williams, Jennifer Krahn and William Brown.

Albers, Williams, Pierre, Colville, Ojuri, Boyd, Rodgers, Shepherd, Smith and Gray are all current members of the North Dakota State University Bison football team.

Gatlin, McNorton and Carter are former members of the team.

Team officials have said any potential disciplinary action will wait until court cases have been resolved.

According to court documents, all of those charged have admitted to forging signatures on petitions they circulated last summer, including Ojuri and Williams, who are both Bison standouts.

Ojuri stated he was paid $90 for an eight-hour shift and $45 for a four-hour shift, adding he was told by his employer that if he reached 80 signatures in an eight-hour shift he would receive a $10 bonus.

Asked what would happen if he didn't obtain the minimum expected signature count of about 60 signatures per shift, Ojuri said it was his understanding people would be fired if they weren't "up to par."

According to the documents, Ojuri said he would write names on petitions for the Clean Water, Lands and Outdoor Heritage Fund initiative in order to meet his quota, or to reach the bonus amount.

He estimated 30 to 40 percent of the signatures he turned in were forged, the court documents state.

Williams told investigators he was initially paid $15 an hour to collect signatures for an initiative seeking to legalize marijuana for medical use, and he said he was expected to get at least 60 signatures during an eight-hour shift.

He said Dave Schwartz, who was running the petition drive for the ballot measure, later offered to pay him $18 an hour if Williams got at least 80 signatures a shift, the court documents say.

Williams said at first he collected valid signatures for petitions he circulated, but he later used phone books to come up with names, and Williams told investigators perhaps half of the signatures he turned in had been forged, court documents state.

Schwartz said Friday that people who circulated petitions for the medical marijuana measure were paid anywhere between $15 and $18 an hour. He stressed that pay was based on performance and not on any specific number of signatures being collected.

Ojuri and other petition workers who collected signatures for the conservation fund measure were employed by an Iowa company called Terra Strategies, which hasn't returned phone calls from The Forum seeking comment.

Lee Ann Oliver, an election specialist with the North Dakota Secretary of State's Office, said this week that it is against the law to pay petition circulators per signature gathered.

Less clear, she said, is whether that prohibition extends to a quota system.

Jim Kottmeyer, a partner in Terra Strategies, told The Associated Press on Friday the company was conducting an internal review of the problem and cooperating with supporters of the conservation fund campaign.

"We intend to get to the bottom of figuring out what did or did not happen," Kottmeyer told the AP.

Also, documents obtained by The Associated Press show the company required petition circulators to sign a code of conduct promising not to engage in illegal activity while gathering signatures.

Cass County prosecutors said the investigation into election violations is continuing, though it wasn't clear whether anyone else will face charges.

The 15 people that have been charged face Class A misdemeanors that carry potential maximum penalties of a year in jail and fines of up to $2,000.

All of those charged have been summoned to appear in Cass County District Court on Oct. 2.