By Jane Harper & Victoria Bourne, The Virginian-Pilot
Before submitting petitions to get congressional candidate Shaun Brown on the November ballot, workers were required to sign an affidavit on the back of each page.
They promised that they had witnessed the signature of each person named on the document. They also acknowledged that breaking this promise would make them guilty of a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $2,500 fine. Each affidavit also had to be notarized.
Yet, it's been widely reported that some of the nearly 600 signatures submitted by campaign workers for one of Brown's opponents – Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor – were forged.
State Democrats believe that Taylor's team was trying to get Brown, who is running as an independent, on the 2nd Congressional District ballot to siphon votes from their candidate, Elaine Luria. They filed a lawsuit last week and claim to have found enough fraudulent signatures to keep Brown's name off the ballot.
A team of reporters from The Virginian-Pilot recently conducted a two-week investigation of the petition signatures, trying to contact each voter listed on the dozens of pages submitted by five people paid by Taylor's campaign.
The Pilot reached 115 of the 584 people listed – or a family member – by phone. Reporters were unable to contact the remaining 469, either because the name listed was illegible, no phone number could be found, or the person did not return messages.
Of those reached, 51 people – including several local Republican politicians – acknowledged signing the petition. Six others weren't sure whether they did.
But 59 – more than half of those reached – declared the signatures to be fraudulent.
Of those reportedly forged names, four belonged to Virginia Beach men who died in recent years: Floyd Newkirk, Hugh Doy, Melvin Chittum and R. Stuart Cake.
Floyd Newkirk's son, Eddie Newkirk, was in the process of moving his mother from Virginia Beach to Scottsdale, Ariz., where he lives, when he learned that his late father's signature had appeared on one of the petitions. The elder Newkirk was a retired Marine, Korean War veteran and long-distance truck driver who died in 2016 at the age of 83, according to his obituary.
Eddie Newkirk was disheartened to hear that his deceased father's name was used for political gain.
"I'm not surprised," he said. "But I'm disappointed that someone would stoop to that level."
Some of the fraudulent entries contained name misspellings. Others had addresses that the person hadn't lived at in years written next to their names. One person was in the hospital being treated for throat cancer on the day he was reported to have signed. Another said she was out of town attending a graduation ceremony.
Many of those named are elderly people, including Floyd Felten of Virginia Beach, whose name also was misspelled. Felten's daughter, Carol Campbell, said she's sure that her father didn't sign.
"He's 102," Campbell said. "He really can't sign his name that well."
Most of those who said they didn't sign had no idea how their names ended up on the petitions. Some said they were Taylor supporters or Republicans, had given money to Taylor's campaign, were on an email list for him or had agreed to put his campaign signs in their yards.
Mary Lou Ferralli said she worked the polls for Taylor in his last election and may have given money to his campaign. Like many of those contacted, she was upset that her name appeared to have been forged, but said she still plans to vote for Taylor.
A few said they had soured on Taylor as a result. "I voted for him," said Iva Compton. "But I won't vote for him again."
Among those who acknowledged signing the petitions were numerous employees of the Virginia Beach Sheriff's Office, a detail first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The Pilot's investigation found 52 sheriff's employees listed on petitions submitted by Taylor's campaign staff.
Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle, a Republican and former state senator, is a supporter of Taylor's but said he did not circulate the petitions.
The sheriff said in an emailed statement that it was his "understanding" that they were passed around during the workday by members of his staff, not the Taylor campaign members who signed affidavits on those pages.
If that's the case, then those 52 signatures also were obtained illegally, said Rebecca Green, a professor at the College of William & Mary's law school who runs the election law program.
"If a page got out of their (the circulator's) hands and was sent around an office – that's a violation," Green said. "They're supposed to witness each signature."
Stolle said he routinely allows petitions to be passed around among his employees and encourages his staff to be engaged in politics and the community.
"I have never declined a request to circulate or sign a petition for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation, because I believe anyone who wants to run should have the opportunity to do so," he said.
One acknowledged signer contacted by The Pilot – Holly Tuthill of Poquoson – said she signed at a Poquoson Republican Party gathering she attended with her father. But Tuthill said she was misled about what she was signing and wouldn't have if she had known all the details.
Tuthill said one of Taylor's staffers came to the meeting and urged the group to sign. The man – who Tuthill described as pushy – told them that the candidate listed on the petition was an independent who "leaned right."
"He told us we really need to back this person," Tuthill said. "Many of us signed it blindly because he was one of us and we trusted him."
Most of the signatures submitted by the Taylor supporters were obtained during a two-day blitz on June 8 and 9, just days before the June 12 filing deadline.
Brown, a Hampton businesswoman who ran as a Democrat against Taylor in 2016, has said she didn't know that Taylor staffers were collecting signatures for her. She faces trial in October on charges that she defrauded the federal government through a summer meal program for children. She was tried on the charges in federal court earlier this month, but the case ended with a hung jury. She did not return a call from The Pilot seeking comment for this story.
Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, is seeking a second term. Luria, a former Navy commander, is making her first run for political office. The 2nd Congressional District, considered one of the most competitive in the state, includes all of Virginia Beach and the state’s Eastern Shore, as well as Norfolk’s north side and several localities on the Peninsula, including Williamsburg and York County.
Taylor has acknowledged that he knew his campaign workers were collecting signatures for Brown, but said it was because they thought Brown had been treated unfairly by Democrats. He fired his campaign manager before the petition signatures came into question, and cut ties with his campaign consultant afterward.
Brown needed 1,000 valid signatures to be included on the ballot as an independent. Of the more than 1,900 that were submitted – including 1,350 turned in by her supporters – 1,030 were declared valid by the state board of elections.
Chris Piper, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, said his office compares submitted signatures to the registered voter database to make sure each name and address listed belonged to a person who is registered and qualified to vote in the coming election. Piper said he could not comment on specifics about the Brown case because of the pending investigation.
WHRO public radio first broke the news of the alleged forgery, saying it had found five fraudulent signatures, including one from a man who died two months before he supposedly signed the document.
The next day, a special prosecutor was appointed to oversee an investigation into the claims. A week after that, the state Democratic Party filed their lawsuit, and included 35 affidavits from people who said they never signed the petitions. A hearing on the case is scheduled Sept. 5 in Richmond Circuit Court, during which the Democrats will ask a judge to block the printing of the ballots until their claim is resolved.
The Pilot found five people associated with Taylor's campaign listed as being among the circulators of the petitions: Heather Guillot, Lauren Creekmore, Roberta Marciano, Daniel Bohner and Nicholas Hornung.
Federal Election Commission records show that Creekmore, Marciano and Hornung each received payments from Taylor's campaign this year that were listed as payroll disbursements.
Creekmore received five payments totaling $6,036; Marciano got three for $3,097; and Hornung got two for a total of $2,041, the records show.
Guillot was paid for campaign consulting, getting a one-time payment of $1,215. A person named Orville D. Bohner, who has the same address that Daniel Bohner listed on his affidavits, got $600 over three installments, the records showed.
None of the signatures associated with Hornung were reported to be fraudulent by the people contacted by The Pilot, and only one submitted by Bohner was questioned.
Guillot, who served as chief of staff and campaign manager for former Republican state Del. Rocky Holcomb, had the most that were questioned, with 29 being reported as fraudulent. She also was the only one who had the names of dead people listed on her submitted petitions.
Thirteen people claimed that signatures submitted by Marciano were forged, and 12 said the same about signatures handed in by Creekmore.
The Pilot sought comment from each of the staffers, but was unable to reach them.
Taylor spokesman Scott Weldon refused to say whether any of them were still associated with the campaign.
"With respect to the efforts by some in our campaign to assist Ms. Brown in getting on the ballot, there is an investigation that is ongoing, and it obviously would not be appropriate to comment at this time," Weldon wrote in an emailed response.
Roanoke Commonwealth's Attorney Don Caldwell, the special prosecutor chosen to oversee the investigation, declined to discuss details while the case is pending. He did say that the inquiry is already under way and that he doesn't expect it to be completed until after the election.
If the prosecutor determines there's enough evidence to support charges in the case, they likely would include felonies such as filing false statements or perjury, said Matthew Shapanka, an attorney in Washington, D.C. who specializes in political law.
"It really depends on the facts and what they find," Shapanka said. "If they find blatant fraud, they may refer it."
A similar case was prosecuted in Virginia in 2013 against two people who submitted thousands of fraudulent signatures in an effort to get former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich on the 2012 presidential ballot.
Adam Dustin Ward of Martinsville pleaded guilty to 36 counts of filing false statements and perjury, and Jennifer Derreberry of Bassett pleaded guilty to one count each.
Both received suspended prison sentences and were placed on five years probation.