The Oregon Secretary of State’s Office is investigating 74 signature sheets that the unaffiliated candidate for governor Betsy Johnson submitted in August to qualify for the ballot.
Through a public records request, WW learned that the SOS is withholding the signature sheets in question from a lawyer who’d requested them, citing an exemption to the public records law that allows “investigatory information compiled for criminal law purposes to be withheld.”
Ben Morris, a spokesman for Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, the state’s top elections officer, says the investigation is preliminary and being conducted by staff in the Elections Division.
“We are not investigating Betsy Johnson or her campaign,” Morris says. “We are investigating individuals hired by the signature gathering firm that worked on her nominating petition.”
Jennifer Sitton, a spokeswoman for the Johnson campaign, says the matter involves only the signature gathering firm Initiative & Referendum Campaign Management Services.
“Consistent with the fact that the secretary of state is not investigating our campaign, we have no details about the investigation,” Sitton says.
IRCMS founder and CEO Ted Blaszak, whose firm Johnson’s campaign paid $897,000 for signature gathering, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Aug. 16, Johnson, a former longtime Democratic state senator from Scappoose, turned in 48,214 signatures, more than double the 23,744 valid signatures she needed to qualify for the ballot as an unaffiliated candidate. (Elections officials determined that 37,679 of the signatures were valid, a 78% validity rate. That’s higher than most signature gathering efforts.)
After Johnson turned the signatures in, Steve Elzinga, a Salem lawyer, filed a public records request with Fagan’s office Aug. 31, seeking copies of the signature sheets Johnson’s campaign submitted.
On Sept. 29, according to emails WW obtained under its own public records request, Lydia Plukchi, an official at the Elections Division, told Elzinga he could not have some of the requested documents.
“Please note that we are withholding 74 sheets from public disclosure because they relate to an ongoing investigation,” Plukchi wrote. Oregon Revised Statutes 192.345(3) “allows investigatory information compiled for criminal law purposes to be withheld.”
Morris says his agency is examining the mechanics of the signature gathering.
“The investigation we are conducting will have no bearing on whether Betsy Johnson qualified for the ballot,” Morris says. “She had more than enough valid signatures to do so.”
Elzinga, who previously served as legal adviser to late Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a Republican, has an active election law practice. He has appealed the secretary of state’s denial of his request for the signature sheets in question to the Oregon Department of Justice, which enforces the public records law at state agencies.
Elzinga declined to identify his client but noted that “all Oregonians share an interest in full transparency of the elections process, especially during such a close election.”