PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The signature scandal swirling around Sabina Matos’s campaign for Congress is widening, as several Newport residents tell Target 12 their signatures were forged on nomination papers submitted to election officials for Matos.
A Target 12 review of more than three dozen signatures submitted to the Newport Board of Canvassers uncovered at least three people who said in interviews they did not sign nomination paperwork to help Matos, the Democratic lieutenant governor, qualify for the Sept. 5 primary ballot.
“Hell no,” said Newport resident Christopher Roy when asked if he signed nomination paperwork.
Target 12 sent Roy images of his purported signature on the document, which was listed as “accepted” by election officials.
“No that is not my signature,” Roy replied.
It was the same story for Newport resident Lajourney King. Reached by phone, King said she didn’t recall signing nomination papers for Matos.
Sent an image of the signature, King responded by text: “Lol heck no.”
The daughter of Leslie Viruet said the signature of her mother used on the paperwork wasn’t valid, either.
“Looking at the signature I can tell you for a fact that is not my mom’s signature,” the daughter said in a text. “It’s too sloppy to be hers.”
All the paperwork was submitted by Holly McClaren of Providence, whom Matos campaign manager Brexton Isaacs has described as a “campaign supporter.” McClaren didn’t immediately return a call from Target 12.
McClaren is the same person who submitted signatures for Matos in nearby Jamestown, where the Board of Canvassers on Monday requested a police investigation into suspected fraud by the campaign.
“Upon review by the canvassing clerk, several discrepancies were discovered with the voter names and signatures that appeared on the form which led the clerk to file a report with the Jamestown Police Department,” Interim Jamestown Police Chief Angela Deneault said.
Filing false signatures is a felony under Rhode Island law that comes with a potential maximum penalty of 10 years behind bars and a potential fine of up to $5,000.
The revelations have rocked the Matos campaign, which had been seen as the frontrunner in the crowded 13-candidate primary to replace David Cicilline. Her campaign was already facing questions about its position after reporting weak fundraising numbers on Saturday that left her trailing multiple rivals financially.
Matos’s opponents have pounced on the revelations.
“With our democracy quite literally under attack right now, it’s more important than ever that we stand up for fair elections that voters can have faith in,” said former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, her leading rival. “It appears the Matos campaign has failed on these absolutely critical measures.”
Another candidate, Gabe Amo, suggested Matos has been ducking the controversy.
“Lieutenant Governor Matos has remained silent and taken no accountability for her campaign’s actions,” Amo said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “The lieutenant governor needs to address this directly. She has been silent on these fake signatures which were notarized by a senior member of her campaign.”
(Both sets of paperwork were notarized by Evan England, Matos’s lead consultant and spokesperson. A notary is only required to authenticate the signature of the person submitting the paperwork, not all the individual signatures on the nomination papers.)
Amo added, “We do not deserve a silent representative in Congress.”
In response to questions from Target 12, Matos issued a statement Tuesday evening stressing that she still expects to have enough certified signatures to make the ballot.
“While it is clear we have submitted more than enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, I am deeply troubled by what has been reported in the news,” Matos said. “Anyone who violated the law should be held accountable and will have no role on my campaign.”
The secretary of state’s office has certified 728 signatures for Matos, giving her a cushion of 228 beyond the minimum of 500 if some are thrown out.
The three people who spoke to Target 12 on Tuesday aren’t the only questionable names on the documents that McClaren submitted for Matos. Newport officials had already rejected 24 of the 55 names provided by McClaren.
Signatures can be rejected for various reasons, including when the names don’t match or residents aren’t registered to vote.
In a statement Tuesday night, Newport Canvassing Authority Chairwoman Sharon Connors told Target 12, “We take election integrity seriously and will be diligent to ensure that any claims of wrongdoing are investigated rigorously.”
Candidates running in the 1st Congressional District race had to submit signatures to local town halls by Friday afternoon. To get on the ballot, a candidate is required to collect 500 valid signatures on nomination papers. That paperwork was sent to state election officials on Tuesday to get certified.
Faith Chybowski, a spokesperson for R.I. Secretary of State Gregg Amore, said his office had certified 13 Democrats including Matos for the ballot, along with two Republicans.
Chybowksi said anyone who wants to challenge a nomination paper has until Wednesday at 4 p.m. to file a complaint with the secretary of state’s office.
While the Democratic primary to replace Cicilline has drawn an unusually large number of candidates, it has so far stirred little interest from voters. Only one candidate — former state official Nick Autiello — has aired a TV campaign ad.
Autiello’s campaign on Tuesday released an internal poll showing Matos in the lead but with one in three likely primary voters still undecided. The survey of 300 voters, conducted last week, found Matos at 20%, Regunberg at 12%, and six other Democrats clustered in single-digits.
Early voting in the primary begins Aug. 16.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.