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Ballot challenge, spearheaded by Lentz, alleges widespread fraud in Meehan’s petitions

The nominating petitions that Republican Pat Meehan’s congressional campaign submitted to get on the May primary ballot are so rife with invalid signatures and outright fraud as to warrant keeping the former U.S. Attorney off the ballot, according to a complaint filed in Commonwealth Court.

The 15-page complaint, filed by Republican supporters of Meehan’s likely Democratic opponent Bryan Lentz, details a litany of problems with the more than 3,600 signatures collected by Meehan’s campaign, as well as with the petitions on which they were gathered. If even a fraction of the allegations prove to be true, it will cast significant doubt on Meehan’s comments last week implying that the problems were limited to signatures gathered by one just one person. Lentz’s campaign also spurred ballot challenges against both of his underdog primary opponents, E. Teresa Touey and Gail Conner, in a move that could leave him unopposed in May but could also run the risk of alienating some Democratic women (a Women for Lentz fundraiser is scheduled for Thursday evening).

It was unclear Wednesday night when court hearings for any of the challenges would take place.

The complaint, which is being handled by prominent election lawyer Clifford Levine, alleges that an examination of Meehan’s nominating petitions reveals “a wide-ranging and extensive pattern of false and forged entries, entries obtained through deception of Signers, and whole pages of outright forged signatures.” The complaint is the culmination of a several-days long effort by Lentz campaign staffers, during which they pored through Meehan’s nominating petitions and contacted people whose signatures they now believe were forged. Though Lentz cannot personally be the one challenging Meehan’s ballot position—the law requires the challenge come from a registered Republican—his campaign has made no effort to hide its fingerprints on on the complaint.

“This challenge will demonstrate that the instances of forgery and fraud in Meehan’s petitions extend far beyond what Meehan and his organization were willing to admit in their confession to the district attorney last week,” Lentz campaign manager Vincent Rongione said.

More than 2,600 signatures have to be ruled void for Meehan to be knocked off the ballot. And while the complaint involves enough signatures that it alleges to be invalid, it references evidence which will only emerge in the discovery process if the case moves forward—making it impossible to fully and independently assess the allegations at this early stage.

Meehan’s campaign did not comment directly on the complaint or its substance Wednesday, except to share with reporters a letter that he sent to Lentz about the matter. In the letter, Meehan lamented that Lentz is picking “petty fights” and playing “gotcha politics.” He dismissed the scope of the complaint’s claims, and challenged Lentz to “do better.”

“In truth, this whole part of the exercise is a charade,” Meehan wrote. “Stop hiding behind your political handlers and loyalists and stand up and make your support for this petty challenge public.”

Meehan also said this his campaign had reviewed Lent’s nominating petitions and found 550 signatures that could be challenged (Lentz’s campaign collected more than 5,000).

“But I chose not to engage in the waste of court resources that your campaign has willingly embraced,” Meehan wrote. “I believe voters deserve better.”

The complaint is nothing if not wide in scope, claiming to have evidence enough to strike 2,284 signatures simply on their individual merits. The signatures in question, according to the complaint, include ones that, among other things, were illegible; incomplete; belonging to voters not registered in the district; belong to voters not registered as Republicans; or forged entirely by someone else. It further alleges that many of the petitions on which signatures were gathered were circulated by people other than those who signed affidavits confirming they had  witnessed each signature.

All together, it appears to be the most serious ballot challenge to a major candidate this cycle. And unless it completely flops in court, even a loss would seem to have significant political upside for Lentz. Despite its competitiveness, many Democratic leaders and fundraisers are bearish on the race, seeing Meehan and the powerful Republican Party in Delaware County as exceedingly tough to beat in a year trending against the Democrats. A substantive ballot challenge could dent that perception, and energize some in the party to take at least one foot off the sidelines.

It also underscores that the Lentz campaign believes it has one of its strongest arguments against Meehan in seeking to paint him as part of the county GOP machine, a local party with a sway over local politics rivaled by few others in Pennsylvania. It’s an argument that will be especially hard to make against someone like Meehan—a man who can claim credit for putting former state Senator Vince Fumo behind bars, and who oversaw a City Hall probe that ended with guilty pleas or convictions for everyone charged.

And the complaint could also serve to put the county GOP itself “on trial,” in a manner of speaking. Some of the people the complaint targets for allegations of fraudulent signature collection include party bosses Tom Judge and John McNichol.

The complaint began to emerge about a week ago, when operatives for Lentz learned that a supporter’s wife allegedly had her signature forged on a nominating petition. They began to dig deeper, and soon, Meehan alerted the press that it had asked county District Attorney Mike Green to investigate the matter (pa2010.com has yet to determine whether or not it was the Lentz campaign’s actions that directly led to Meehan learning of the problems). In his letter to Green, Meehan acknowledged that petitions circulated by one person contain signatures “that we believe are questionable.” The disclosure got Meehan’s campaign ahead of the story for a few news cycles. But Lentz staffers and volunteers worked through the weekend to review Meehan’s nominating petitions, and by the beginning of this week they were looking for a lawyer to file the complaint by the day-end deadline on Tuesday.

Levine, the lawyer handling the ballot challenge, has worked for Senator Bob Casey, and led successful the ballot challenge against a third-party candidate in the 2006 Senate race. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

•Also on pa2010.com: Meehan asks D.A. to investigate his ballot petitions
D.A. investigating Meehan’s petitions also a contributor

March 17, 2010 at 11:11 pm

--Dan Hirschhorn

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