California

Election fraud scheme bribed LA homeless with cigarettes for signatures, prosecutors say

People make their way down the street in front of the wall mural on San Julian Street in the heart of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
People make their way down the street in front of the wall mural on San Julian Street in the heart of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. MCT

Nine people face felony charges in Los Angeles after a large-scale election fraud scheme used cash and cigarettes to bribe the homeless, according to the district attorney’s office.

Hundreds of homeless people who live on Skid Row — a notoriously poor section of the city — were offered $1 bills or cigarettes to forge other people’s signatures on voter registration forms and on petitions to get measures on the California state ballot, prosecutors said.

“They come in and they target the homeless population because they can get so many [signatures],” Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Marc Reina said in a phone interview in September. “When you see those tables and lines of people down the sidewalks it gets conspicuous, and we’re able to take action.”

Reina said three people were arrested on felony election fraud charges in the neighborhood in September after they got caught circulating a petition supporting a proposed referendum to overturn a new law that gets rid of money bail in the state. Some of the fraud suspects were paying the homeless even less than a dollar for the forged signatures on that petition, Reina said.

Petitions to qualify measures for the state ballot must be signed by registered voters, according to the California secretary of state’s office — explaining why the homeless would be asked to forge other people’s names.

“It’s been going on for years,” Officer Deon Joseph told KABC. “They say, ‘Hey, you want to make a quick buck?’ ”

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Five of the nine people charged in the fraud scheme appeared in court Tuesday morning. Each pleaded not guilty, and their next court appearance is set for January, prosecutors said on Twitter. The group faces a dozen felony counts, including registering a fictitious person, registering a nonexistent person, circulating a petition with false names and using false names on a petition.

Prosecutors said the scheme occurred during the 2016 and 2018 elections.

The defendants who appeared in court were 38-year-old Kirkland Washington, 62-year-old Richard Howard, 42-year-old Rose Sweeney, 59-year-old Christopher Williams and 61-year-old Norman Hall, according to the district attorney’s office.

Four others — 53-year-old Harold Bennett, 36-year-old Louis Wise, 35-year-old Jakara Mardis and 44-year-old Nickey Huntley — also face charges.

Washington, Bennett and Wise each are charged with eight counts, and the trio would face up to six years and four months in prison if they are convicted, prosecutors said.

The rest of the defendants each face four counts, which carry a maximum sentence of four years and eight months in prison.

“We didn’t charge any homeless people,” district attorney spokesperson Shiara Davila-Morales said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

State officials said election fraud of that nature is an isolated problem in California, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Still, a local elections official told the newspaper that reports of forgeries could undermine faith in the system — even though he said it’s unlikely forgeries would get past elections officials, because they manually compare signatures on petitions with those on registration forms.

“It’s not really voter fraud, in terms of illegal voting and manipulation,” Dean Logan, the head of Los Angeles County elections, said in September, according to the Times. “But I am certainly concerned about any activity that causes voters to lose faith in the process.”

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