PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — State election officials are signaling they will not reexamine signatures that people claim were forged on Sabina Matos nomination papers, even though advocates argue they have the legal authority to do so.
The Democratic lieutenant governor, who’s running to represent the 1st Congressional District, has become engulfed in an ongoing scandal involving Rhode Islanders in multiple communities who say their signatures were forged on her nomination papers.
In Jamestown, local election officials said Matos’s nomination papers included three people who are dead, one of whom passed away more than 20 years ago.
Despite the reports of fraud, the R.I. Board of Elections is trying to move on from the scandal. In a statement Wednesday, the board argued Matos’s signatures were appropriately submitted, vetted and verified by local canvassers. The panel also argued she collected more than enough verified signatures to be included on the ballot for the Sept. 5 primary election.
“Local boards did their job, verifying signatures, rejecting signatures, identifying a subset of rejected signatures as potentially fraudulent, and referring these to state and local law enforcement for criminal investigation,” BOE spokesperson Christopher Hunter said in a statement.
However, Target 12 has interviewed multiple people in Newport and Barrington who said their names were forged on Matos nomination papers yet later accepted by local canvassers, raising questions about how many of the accepted signatures might be fake. It’s unclear if that question will ever be answered by local or state election officials.
Secretary of State Gregg Amore’s office has reported Matos collected 728 valid signatures, well exceeding the 500 needed to make the ballot, and her campaign aides have said they are confident she has more than enough despite the forgeries.
(In an interview with What’s Up Newp, Matos said her campaign submitted roughly 1,300 signatures in total — indicating that local canvassers rejected over 40% of the signatures collected on Matos’s behalf.)
Hunter didn’t immediately respond to follow-up questions about whether anyone is responsible for rechecking those or any other names included on the papers. In his initial statement, he did clarify that the board’s referral of the signatures to Attorney General Peter Neronha last week wasn’t an effort to get him to verify them before the election.
“This was a referral to investigate potentially fraudulent signatures, not for verification, as that work had already been completed by local boards of canvassers,” Hunter said.
The board also noted that there was only one official objection to Matos’s nomination papers, which came from her Democratic rival Donald Carlson. But that challenge was tossed out Friday after nobody from the Carlson campaign showed up to make their case.
“The board voted to reject this objection as no officially designated representative of the Carlson campaign appeared to challenge specific nomination paper signatures,” Hunter said.
Common Cause of Rhode Island executive director John Marion argued the Board of Elections could have been more proactive in reviewing Matos’s signatures under its existing authority.
“The board clearly has the ability, under statute and their own regulations, to review all of the signatures submitted by the Matos campaign, even in the absence of a challenge,” Marion said.
Regardless, Marion said the question of whether Matos should be on the ballot “is an academic exercise at this point,” because military and overseas ballots with Matos’s name on them have already been printed and mailed.
“It’s like wondering who won the popular vote for president in Florida in 2000,” Marion told Target 12, referencing the weeks-long recount in the presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
“There is no mechanism at this point that I’m aware of for the Board of Elections or secretary of state to disqualify her from the ballot,” he said.
Marion added, “There was a window last week where the Board of Elections could have settled the question before the point of no return, but they incorrectly chose to punt the question to the attorney general.”
‘No, you have a good day’
The Board of Elections initially asked Neronha’s office to respond to them within 30 days, but the state’s top prosecutor has been clear that he isn’t bound by their request.
The criminal probe into the signatures is heating up. The attorney general met this week with state and local police to map out their strategy for the investigation.
Much of the public scrutiny so far has focused on Holly McClaren, a woman hired by the Matos campaign to assemble a team and collect signatures.
Matos has blamed McClaren and her firm, Harmony Solutions, for collecting and submitting fraudulent signatures, saying her staff was unaware of any forged signatures before they were submitted to local boards of canvassers.
Target 12 briefly caught up with McClaren outside her Providence home on Tuesday.
When asked whether any of the signatures were forged, she responded, “No, you have a good day,” before driving off in her car.
John Grasso, who is representing McClaren, said he reached out to the attorney general’s office on Wednesday, offering to set up a meeting between prosecutors and his client.
In a statement earlier this week, Grasso said the Matos campaign hired McClaren to assemble a team to collect signatures, and that she didn’t personally forge any of them.
Matos agreed to pay McClaren $15,800, but had only provided her with one payment of $5,265, according to Grasso.
Ted Nesi contributed to this report.