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Possible forged signatures turned in for a ballot issue are now investigated by the Attorney General

Posted: 8:10 PM, Aug 12, 2016
Updated: 2016-08-13 02:10:07Z

DENVER -- The Colorado Attorney General's Office is investigating a new case of possible forged signatures.

The Secretary of State's Office alerted the Attorney General to possible fake signatures, as it was counting and verifying signatures turned in for a ballot issue.

Last month, a group wanting to raise the minimum wage turned in 189,419 signatures to qualify the issue for the November ballot. The group needed 98,492 valid signatures to make the ballot. To determine if the signature threshold is met, the Secretary of State's Office outsources the work to the Department of Personnel and Administration in Pueblo. The group first counts each signature, and then takes a random sample of five percent of the signatures to determine if enough valid signatures remain.

The Secretary of State's Office certified nearly 115,000 signatures to qualify the issue for the ballot .

"When they were checking one of those sections, they found that it appeared to them, just on its face, that possibly someone had filled out each one of the signature lines him or herself, and that it didn't look like unique handwriting," said Ben Schler, legal and policy manager for the Elections Division of the Secretary of State's Office.

The Secretary of State's Office identified about 50 questionable signatures from three pages of one petition that were turned in by the same signature collector.

"It looked close enough from the naked eye, that it was something that we should refer over to the Attorney General's Office," said Schler.

Earlier this month, a series of Denver7 investigations uncovered forged signatures turned in by a person collecting signatures to help qualify a U.S. Senate candidate for the ballot. The candidate made the ballot, but did not win the primary.

The questionable signatures were caught by Denver7 political reporter Marshall Zelinger, who went door-to-door and confirmed with nearly 20 voters that their signatures were not signed by them.

The signature collector, Maureen Moss, was arrested on nearly three dozen counts of forgery .

The Secretary of State's Office revealed that even prior to the Denver7 investigation, a staffer checking the signatures had concerns, but those concerns were not escalated to the Secretary of State. As a result of the Denver7 investigation, the internal notification process changed, which was utilized in this new case.

"After that investigation, we did put processes in place in order to make sure that it got to me, as the person who's in charge in the Elections Division, and then I'm able to move it up to my superiors in Elections, and then eventually to the administration to make sure that we make the right decision on whether or not to investigate," said Schler. "That definitely made it clear to us that we didn't have in place good chain of command, as you said, in order to make sure that that stuff got escalated to the level of management where someone can make a decision that allowed you to do something like send it to the Attorney General's Office."

Even after being alerted to the concern of forged signatures, one of the questionable signatures was counted in the random sample that helped the minimum wage issue qualify for the ballot.

"One of which was actually accepted because the information matched," said Schler. "We're not in the business of doing signature verification. We are not signature experts. We did accept one of those lines as valid."

The signature counted because the name and the address matched what is on record with that voter's registration.

As Denver7 uncovered in our initial forged signature investigation , the Secretary of State's Office does not verify that the person actually signed the petition, like counties do for the actual election ballot.

"We simply don't have the statutory authority to reject something based on our inkling that it might possibly be forged," said Schler. "We can't adjust our processes just because we have an inclination."

After our May investigation, the Secretary of State said he would be working with state lawmakers to change the law to allow more flexibility for his office.

The next legislative session begins in January.

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Marshall Zelinger is a Peabody Award-winning journalist. He covers politics, breaking news and investigations for Denver7 and co-hosts  Politics Unplugged  on Sunday afternoons on Denver7. Follow him on  Twitter  and  Facebook . Email your story tips to Marshall at  Marshall@thedenverchannel.com .