CongressElection 2018News

Petition management firm used by Lamborn, Stapleton has checkered past

Author: Rachel Riley, The Gazette - April 11, 2018 - Updated: April 13, 2018

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In this 2014 file photo, newly re-elected Republican Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton speaks to supporters during the GOP election night gathering, in Denver, Colo. Stapleton cited the possibility of fraud in the collection of voter signatures when he announced on April 10 that he will try to qualify for the Republican gubernatorial primary at the party’s assembly this weekend. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, file)

COLORADO SPRINGS — Questions about the validity of petitions circulated for a gubernatorial candidate and incumbent congressman have put a Colorado Springs firm in the middle of a political controversy that’s rocking the state.

But this isn’t the first time officials have questioned the work of the firm hired to collect signatures to win spots on the June 26 Republican primary ballot for U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, the GOP frontrunner in the governor’s race.

The company, run by Dan Kennedy, has come under fire before amid concerns that its petition circulators have forged signatures and that those working for it have criminal backgrounds.

Stapleton announced Tuesday that he’s withdrawing his petitions, accusing Kennedy Enterprises of engaging in “fraudulent conduct,” lying to his campaign and state officials, and allowing an unqualified petition circulator to collect names.

Kennedy has denied any wrongdoing. He told Colorado Politics in an email: “[T]o the best of my knowledge, ALL of the petition circulators are Colorado residents. And ALL the signatures were gathered legally.”

Tuesday, a Denver District Court judge ruled that Lamborn will stay on the primary ballot after a lawsuit alleged he fell hundreds of signatures short of the required number because his campaign’s petition circulators didn’t meet legal requirements.

Republican consultants have hailed Kennedy Enterprises as “the gold standard” in petition gathering. In Colorado, candidates for office and political committees have paid the company more than $6.8 million since 1994, according to campaign finance records from the Secretary of State’s Office.

“They’re nationally known,” said prominent Republican strategist Dick Wadhams, who hired the company to collect signatures for Jack Graham’s U.S. Senate campaign in the 2016 elections. “I frankly had an excellent experience with the Kennedy firm.”

The company was founded in 1992 and also offers marketing services such as polling and surveys, its website says.

The website also says the company reviews all signatures collected by its circulators, “making a good faith effort to determine their validity,” and validates each batch using at least 10 percent random sampling.

Kennedy did not respond to multiple calls requesting comment. A Gazette reporter visited the address listed on the firm’s website and found the company no longer there.

Steve Durham, a lobbyist who’s worked with the company, called it “a very significant player” in petition management.

Durham, who serves on the Colorado State Board of Education, said he worked with the firm in 2005 on a Colorado Springs ballot initiative.

“The work they did at that time was just fine,” he said.

But not all of Kennedy’s clients were satisfied.

In 2013, a group supporting then-state Sen. John Morse demanded a criminal investigation into thousands of signatures – some collected by the firm’s employees – on a petition to recall him. The group alleged that as many as 2,100 signatures were forged, not properly notarized or came from voters who lived outside Morse’s district.

About six months later, prosecutors charged a 21-year-old man who worked for Kennedy Enterprises on the Morse recall campaign with forgery, perjury and attempt to influence a public official after an investigator found more than a dozen of the signatures the man had collected were phony. He pleaded guilty to one count of each charge in 2014.

The invalid signatures used names of people who said they had not signed the petition or, in one case, someone who had died two years earlier, the investigator found.

At the time, Kennedy told investigators the man had been fired after he turned in a petition that appeared to be forged, and that petition was not accepted.

Media reports surfaced during 2008 campaigns that the company had hired signature gatherers who had been convicted of crimes, including sexual assault on a child, theft, harassment and trespassing.

In 2000, officials in Indiana launched an investigation into signatures that the firm had collected to get Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer on the Indiana primary ballot. At least four of the nearly 500 names on a petition that Kennedy Enterprises submitted to an Indiana county clerk’s office belonged to people who died years before, officials previously told The Gazette.

Rachel Riley, The Gazette

Rachel Riley, The Gazette