May 30, 2012 at 1:00 am

87% of McCotter petition signatures invalid

Attorney general asked to probe submission of fraudulent signatures to state election board

On some pages, the lines and letters on the petition forms donít align or have been cut off, suggesting an alteration. (Detroit News)

Lansing — The 136-page stack of petition signatures turned in for U.S. Rep. Thad McCotter is riddled with photocopied duplicates, changes to election tracking numbers and apparent copying and pasting, a Detroit News review shows.

McCotter, the five-term GOP congressman, turned in about 1,830 petition signatures in advance of the May 15 deadline to get on the August primary ballot, but the Secretary of State deemed just 244 of the signatures — or 13 percent — valid.

It's a surprising development in a race for the newly redrawn 11th Congressional District that was expected to be easily won by the Republican incumbent. The Michigan attorney general has been asked to investigate the incident, which raises questions about how such deliberate mishandling of petitions could occur and whether criminal charges are warranted.

McCotter has accepted the Secretary of State's findings and said he'll launch a write-in campaign.

The announcement Friday about the suspect signatures set off a scramble over the weekend among Republicans interested in jumping into the race. But on Tuesday, the most talked-about possible candidate, lawyer David Trott, announced he won't mount a write-in campaign. And so far, no other Republican candidate has come forward.

Photocopying on the petitions was so rampant that one sheet with 15 signatures was copied once or in some cases two times with the duplicates mixed into the stack. In those cases, 15 signatures would be turned into 30 or 60. The difference between the copies would be changes to the petition identification number and in some cases a different petition circulator's signature.

The overt copying is "frankly unheard of," said Chris Thomas, Michigan's director of elections, as he thumbed through the stack of petitions Tuesday. "It's amazing when you sit and look, and it starts to dwell on you what they've done."

On each of the petition sheets, next to the circulator's signature, there's a warning that reads: "A circulator knowingly making a false statement in the above certificate, a person not a circulator who signs as a circulator, or a person who signs a name other than his or her own as a circulator is guilty of a misdemeanor."

McCotter of Livonia signed an affidavit when the petitions were submitted. Congressional candidates have to file between 1,000 and 2,000 signatures and have the signatures approved by the Secretary of State's Office and Board of State Canvassers to make the Aug. 7 primary.

McCotter acknowledged the "buck stops here with me for the failure to file sufficient petition signatures." He said he's used the same group of signature gatherers for the past five election cycles, but this time he believes a trusted staffer deceived him.

Indeed, the signatures of the petition circulators on the duplicates include those of current congressional staffers: Milford district office director Paul Seewald and staffers Don Yowchuang and Joseph Salvia. None responded to requests for comment. But they will remain on the taxpayer payroll pending a probe by the attorney general.

"We can't speculate," said McCotter campaign spokesman Randall Thompson, noting staffers handle petition collection in their off-duty hours. "It would be unfair to penalize people when we don't know what happened."

Two other names of circulators appear commonly on the duplicated sheets: Pamela Ann Hull of Redford and Dillon Breen, a campaign volunteer who is running for Livonia's school board. Hull and Breen, a Livonia human relations commissioner, didn't return requests for comment.

Donald Green, the township supervisor for Milford, collected 30 signatures on two sheets of petitions and mailed them to McCotter's district office, he said. But those sheets bearing his signatures as the circulator were photocopied and submitted for a total of 60 signatures among four sheets. The difference between the two was a change in the identification number stamp on the petition.

"After they left my hands, I don't know what went on," Green said. He said he still supports McCotter. "I have all the faith in the world in him. I don't believe he would have done anything wrong."

In addition to the copies, the petitions appear to be cut and pasted in some cases. On some pages, the lines and letters on the forms don't align or have been cut off, suggesting an alteration.

The names of the Wayne and Oakland County residents and their signatures appear to be actual voters, but all the duplicate names were tossed out in accordance with state rules.

The ruling against McCotter leaves Kerry Bentivolio, a teacher and military vet who raises reindeer in Milford, as the only GOP candidate on the primary ballot who filed for the 11th District seat.

Although approached by several GOP leaders to enter the race, Trott of Bingham Farms said Tuesday he won't launch a write-in campaign.

"The timing is not right for me or my family," Trott, a prominent Oakland County GOP donor, said in an emailed statement.

On the Democratic side, Bill Roberts, a Redford Township resident who is backed by Lyndon LaRouche's political action committee, and Dr. Syed Taj, former chief of medicine at Oakwood Hospital and Canton Township trustee, filed to run.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a Republican, called the development a "colossal blunder."

"It was a safe seat, the Legislature drew the seat and basically protected the incumbent," Patterson said, referring to the once-a-decade redistricting process. "He put it in play when it should have been a no-brainer."

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Detroit News Staff Writers Chad Livengood, Lauren Abdel-Razzaq and Josh Katzenstein contributed.