SPRINGFIELD – Even though finances and name ID are arguably the most important factors for success at the ballot box, campaigns are sometimes lost before they even begin when political operatives set out to eliminate competition before voters have a chance to do it unto their own.
In the most recent campaign cycle, Democrat congressional candidate David Bequette defied odds to remain on the March 20 primary ballot. While he lost handily to St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly for their party’s nomination to the 12th Congressional District seat – he prevailed in a tough battle at the Illinois State Board of Elections for the right to remain a candidate.
Bequette’s campaign initially stalled when Lynda Lee Sparks-Frankly of Percy objected to his nominating petitions on Dec. 11, alleging a pattern of fraud and false swearing.
Her lawyer, Belleville city attorney Brian Flynn, called for a finding that Bequette’s petitions were illegal and void in their entirety.
A first examination found Bequette with 13 signatures below the minimum, but the second found him five signatures above it.
Deputy general counsel of the State Board of Elections Heather Kimmons arranged an unusual second examination for Bequette’s nominating petitions in December.
And on March 22, she demonstrated how a sloppy examination of signatures initially knocked Bequette off the ballot. She also provided a behind the scenes look at Bequette’s re-examination, which she described at various points as “controlled chaos.”
“There wasn’t anything nefarious,” said Kimmons.
She said two examiners made mistakes at the first examination.
“They were just going too fast,” she said. “They will get intensive training, as intensive as it can be…We train everyone every year even if they’ve been doing it 20 years.”
For the second examination, she said she chose one of her best.
“My best are the ones I think are more careful and take their time,” she said. “Put every piece together that you can and make your best judgment.”
Kimmons proved her point by demonstrating how signatures that failed the first examination passed the second one.
In one case, she smiled when matching signatures showed up on her screen.
“I don’t know how she found it but she’s good,” Kimmons said. “She went the extra mile.”
Ballot access didn’t help Bequette much in last week’s primary election, as 81 percent of Democrat primary voters chose Brendan Kelly, 41 of Belleville. Kelly has served as state's attorney since 2010 and is a U.S. Navy veteran.
Bequette, 38, of Columbia served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and has been a government contractor and worked in marketing.
When Bequette began circulating petitions last year, he needed 816 signatures.
He and his circulators gathered 1,192 signatures.
On Dec. 11, Sparks-Franklin objected and attorney Flynn alleged a pervasive and systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the electoral process.
Flynn alleged utter and contemptuous disregard for Illinois election code. He alleged a pattern of fraud and false swearing. He charged that circulator Bobby Washington resided at a different address from the one he put on his petitions.
He charged that an excessively high percentage of signatures procured by circulator Ashley Scott were not genuine.
None of Flynn’s charges would hold up, and his decision to compel testimony of Washington and Scott at a hearing in January would backfire.
Nor would he prevail on an objection that 32 persons signed sheets identifying the office as Congress without specifying the 12th District.
Still, no one could dispute Flynn’s assertion that the petition contained improper and incomplete entries.
Bequette’s lawyer, William McGrath of Marshall, wrote in response that the petition substantially complied with Illinois election law.
The election board set an examination Dec. 26, using two computer terminals.
For the event, Bequette and wife Irina Ghaplanyan signed in as witnesses.
Objector Sparks-Franklin signed in along with Justin Maze.
Not all parties send witnesses to examinations, according to Kimmons.
When each side sends witnesses, she said, “It gets loud.”
“It’s chaos, controlled chaos,” she said.
“Bequette’s witnesses were very participatory in this process, and that was prolonging the exam.”
In an hour and 47 minutes, the examiners resolved 184 of 488 objections.
At that pace, the examination would have lasted almost five hours.
Meanwhile, a bigger examination ended ahead of schedule.
Election board staff decided to speed up the Bequette examination by bringing in four terminals from the examination that ended early.
No one objected.
Tripling the number of terminals resulted in four and a half times as many decisions per minute.
In the end, the examiners sustained objections to 391 signatures.
That trimmed Bequette's total to 801, leaving him 15 short of the necessary number.
Later that day, at Bequette’s request, Kimmons reviewed 10 of his 93 sheets.
In two cases, she matched signatures to voter registration cards that examiners hadn’t hunted down.
That gave Bequette 803, still not enough.
He then requested a second examination, claiming it would find at least 22 more signatures of correctly registered voters.
McGrath wrote that Bequette “was not able to witness the review of more than 45 petition pages and has no first hand knowledge of the process under which said review occurred.”
He also wrote that in a short period when Bequette witnessed the extra terminals, staff sustained an objection when the correct ruling was to overrule it.
A staff person “was confused about how to properly use the search engine to identify voter records,” he wrote.
Hearing officer David Herman was inclined to deny a second examination, according to Kimmons.
Herman works in private practice and hears ballot disputes as a contractor.
In 2016, he issued an opinion that allowed three St. Clair County judges to run for election rather than stand for retention.
Kimmons said, “He asked, why would we do it for Bequette when we don’t do it for anyone else?”
She said she favored a second examination, “because I felt badly.”
“I said, let’s give him another chance,” Kimmons said. “I would have loved to see that we were right.”
On Dec. 28, Herman notified the parties that on Dec. 29, the board would perform a second examination of 47 sheets.
Herman wrote that he ordered it, “in an abundance of caution and to ensure a fair and impartial process.”
Bequette brought three pairs of eyes to the second examination, his own and those of Ronald Bequette and Matt Hawkins.
William Looby signed in for Sparks-Franklin.
In less than an hour, Bequette gained 27 signatures and lost nine.
The ratio of reversals exactly matched the ratio of witnesses, three to one.
The net gain of 18 gave him 821, five more than he needed.
That didn’t shake Flynn, who still planned to prove fraud and false swearing.
For the hearing, he served subpoenas on Washington and Scott.
Herman had signed the subpoenas, but a transcript of the hearing shows he may have come to regret it.
First, Herman brought up the sheets that didn’t specify the 12th District.
Herman: Does Beverly Adams, on line three, who lives in New Baden, Illinois, know that when he comes to her to ask for her signature and he says I’m running for the House of Representatives, which is clearly on the office, does she know?
Flynn: I don’t know if she knows.
Herman: Do you have any testimony that she’s confused?
Flynn: No, none.
Herman asked if any witness would testify as to allegations of confusion.
Flynn: Right, I’m not going to.
McGrath called Irina Ghaplanyan as witness.
Ghaplanyan: With some that were difficult to decipher, it would take a significant amount of time to find anything…The whole process is, I would say, arbitrary, because there’s a lot of margin for error. It’s absolutely natural because examiners are there for a few hours doing this work. In the parts we didn’t witness, we weren’t aware whether the examiners were as meticulous as when we were with them.
Flynn called Washington and asked if he circulated petitions.
Washington: Yes, hanging out with Mr. Hawkins.
Flynn asked if Hawkins helped recruit him, and Washington said yes.
Flynn: How did you go get signatures, what did you do?
Washington: We just rode around and went to different areas.
Flynn: Who is we?
Washington: Me and Ashley.
Herman: This isn’t why you got him here. It all deals with his address… I don’t know what you’re fishing for here but I mean, if you’ve got reason to ask as to the processes used, that’s fine.
Flynn said to Washington: So where do you live?
Washington: 5562…The address is on there.
Herman asked him what he had.
Washington: Social Security papers.
Herman asked what address was on the papers, and Washington said 5622.
Herman: Fifty six twenty two what, sir?
Washington: I can’t read it.
Flynn asked if it was 562, and Washington said yes.
Herman: Five sixty two what?
Washington: North 52nd Street.
Flynn asked who he lived with.
Washington: I was staying there with my granny but I’m just saying I moved after she died and I just moved in with my girlfriend.
Flynn: That’s where you’re living now?
Flynn asked the address, and Washington said the Roosevelt. Flynn asked what paperwork he brought.
Washington: Stuff with my address on where I used to stay. I was staying with my granny before she died.
Flynn: When did she die?
Washington handed him a piece of paper and said: Here’s a picture of her.
Flynn: I’m sorry about your grandmother.
Washington: It’s the obituary.
Herman: When did she pass?
Flynn: Will you answer the question? When did she pass away?
Washington: I can’t read. That’s why I don’t know.
Washington: That’s why I’m mixed up like that.
Flynn told Herman he would pass the obituary down.
Herman: You can just read the date. It’s not a trick.
Flynn: June 27, 2017.
Flynn asked Washington if he went up to each person individually.
Washington: Yes, I would walk up to them and I would just say, do you want to sign a petition for David Bequette?
Flynn asked if he went to houses or stood in a common area.
Washington: We went to the grocery store. We walked the houses.
Flynn asked if anyone helped him, and he said Ashley.
Flynn asked if they were together the whole time or if they split up.
Washington: We was together.
Flynn asked if he witnessed everybody who signed, and he said yes.
Flynn showed him a document.
Herman: The problem that you have is the individual testified he can’t read…I’m not going to have you hand sheets in front of him and ask him questions about sheets.
Flynn finished, and McGrath asked Washington if he lived with anybody now.
Washington: I don’t have a current address at this moment because I’m back and forth from home to home.
McGrath asked where he was that morning, and he said his girlfriend’s house.
McGrath asked him for her name, and he said Tiara Scott.
McGrath asked if Tiara had a relationship to Ashley, and he said niece.
McGrath finished, and Herman asked Washington if he had a high school diploma. Washington said no.
Herman asked if he had a “GED,” general equivalency diploma, and he said no.
Scott, who had remained outside the hearing room during Washington’s testimony, took the stand.
Flynn asked her relation to Washington.
Scott: He’s my auntie’s boyfriend.
Flynn asked if they split up with their petition or stayed together.
Scott: We would go to every other house. We was on the same side.
Flynn asked if she helped him fill out the bottom of the sheets, and she said yes.
Flynn asked why.
Scott: Bobby has a problem with reading.
Flynn asked if she helped him read it.
Scott: In front of the notary he was sitting next to me and I read and told him what I was putting his name on it and his address and basically I told him what it was for, that I wrote it in. He printed his name the best way we could.
Flynn: What were you asking him?
Scott: I was telling him, because he don’t know what the stuff means…You can give him the papers and he’s not going to know what none of this means at the bottom of the paper, so as I was filling it out for him I was letting him know what I was doing.
Flynn showed her a page and asked if she wrote, “I, Bobby Washington.”
Scott: Yes, and he printed his name down here.
Flynn asked if she read a paragraph to him and she said she didn’t.
Scott: I just told him they want to know the state, which is Illinois…They said it was okay if I filled that part out, and he signed this part with the notary.
Flynn read a section of the petition and asked if she read it to Washington.
Scott: The stuff was read out loud already prior to me even doing those for him because everybody has to do it.
Flynn asked who read it out loud.
Scott: Matt Hawkins was helping him read the stuff too.
Flynn asked if she witnessed each person sign her petitions, and she said yes. He asked if anyone signed more than once or signed anybody else’s name, and she said no to each.
He asked if she ever wrote somebody else’s name, and she said no.
Flynn: Did anyone give you permission to put their name down?
Scott: No, because that’s against the law.
McGrath asked Scott where her aunt resided. She told him the address and answered that Bobby had stayed there in November and was still there.
McGrath told Herman that if Flynn still sought a ruling on the genuineness of Scott’s signatures, he’d like to present evidence.
Herman: He has presented nothing to show that there has been a high percentage of signatures on those sheets that are not genuine.
Herman said to Flynn: You don’t have a handwriting expert?
Herman: I’ve determined that so far he has presented zero evidence on that.
He asked Flynn if he planned to present any evidence as to the high percentage of signatures procured by Scott.
Flynn: I have no other evidence at all.
Herman said to McGrath: That would answer your question.
The hearing officer’s patience had run out.
Herman to Flynn: What about your allegations of fraud and false swearing? It’s a high burden and I didn’t hear any testimony…You may not find it credible with your smirk and the smile on your face. I don’t see anything in here that has any weight for these allegations.
He asked Flynn for his position, and Flynn dug himself a deeper hole.
Flynn: I thought Mr. Washington’s testimony was interesting. I mean I understand that he might not be able to read, but he couldn’t even tell us his address…He was giving different streets and different house numbers, so I would ask that you take his testimony in consideration.
Herman: He said the whole time, I live with my girlfriend. Fair enough?
Herman: He kept saying she lives at Roosevelt, and I thought that meant the road until someone said Roosevelt housing authority… I understand your argument. He’s uneducated. Can’t read.
Flynn said: I wasn’t anticipating that, so I apologize.
Herman: I was trying to be a little protective of him…I just don’t want him to be demeaned or taken advantage of.
Flynn: I tried not to.
Flynn had lost the day, but he hadn’t necessarily lost the ballot battle.
Herman said he would look at individual signatures.
“I am going to essentially redo the records exam a third time because of the unique circumstances here,” Herman said. “I don’t know if the state board will let me do that, the general counsel, but that’s going to be my request.”
The state board did not let him do that.
Instead, Kimmons reviewed about 10 signatures with him.
On Jan. 7, Herman recommended that the election board overrule the objection and place Bequette on the ballot.
Herman fully credited the testimony of Washington and Scott.
“Neither of these two witnesses provided evidence to support the pattern of false swearing allegations,” Herman wrote.
He wrote that neither supported the allegation that Washington didn’t reside at the address on the sheets.
On Jan. 11, all eight members of the State Electoral Board voted to place Bequette on the ballot.
On March 13, Kimmons provided the Record with Bequette’s signature sheets and the election board’s logs for both examinations.
The log of the first one shows that in 14 minutes after the addition of terminals, staff rejected 13 signatures that the second examination would confirm.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the examiners made 13 mistakes.
In her office on March 22, Kimmons demonstrated that the second examination not only corrected errors of haste but also reversed close calls of judgment.
She offered to explain any decision that changed by performing her own search.
In one instance, through a series of searches, she found a perfect match except that a person who registered as Thomas signed a sheet as Tony.
In another, she swiftly solved a mysterious address and matched a printed name on the petition to a cursive name on a voting card.
“This one’s clear,” she said. “This one’s a mistake.”
In another, a 5 that looked like an 8 fooled the first examination.
“That’s where it helps to have a watcher there,” she said.
In another, she confirmed a signature by spotting a middle name on a voting card that matched a barely legible initial on the petition.
In two cases, the second examination confirmed signatures that looked doubtful in the light of adjacent signatures from the same address.
If examiners rejected the signatures on the basis of other signatures, Kimmons said, they made mistakes.
“If you object to both, we will look at both,” she said.
She searched one signature that passed the first examination and failed the second.
There she found a wrong apartment number and a wrong signature.
“We do the best we can,” she said.
Kimmons did not identify the staff persons who worked too fast.
She said they had no knowledge of who the parties were.
“I guess I’d bet my life on it,” she said.