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Names of the dead found on petitions

Published Aug. 28, 2005

Election officials in several Florida counties have found the names of dead voters on petitions that helped get proposed constitutional amendments on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Pasco County Elections Supervisor Kurt Browning, who found a half-dozen petitions signed with the names of dead voters, is referring the matter to Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials acknowledged Monday they are investigating petition drives in South Florida.

Some of the signatures of dead voters' names were used to qualify Amendment 4, which seeks to allow slot machines at parimutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties if local voters agree.

The Humane Society of the United States and an antigambling group say an investigation, conducted by the national law firm Reed Smith, found thousands of fraudulent signatures filed by contractors for ARNO Consulting, a California firm.

In Broward County, 33 petitions bore the signatures of the names of dead voters, the groups say.

"We think they're trying to pull a fast one on the voters, and they seem to have qualified it by very questionable and illegal means," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. The animal rights group opposes efforts to help the greyhound racing industry.

The groups plan today to ask a judge to strike Amendment 4 from the ballot.

The president of ARNO Consulting said it is not responsible for the alleged fraud.

"We have a thousand petitioners who worked on the petitions in the state," said Michael Arno, whose firm worked on three citizen initiatives in Florida this year. "We want anyone who commits fraud to go to jail. "

It's at least the fourth time petition gathering, and ARNO contractors, have come under fire this election cycle.

"This is a pretty well-worn trick that gets done right before an election where people try to throw in everything to keep something off the ballot," Arno said. "You have to wonder what they're afraid of."

Three months ago, two ARNO contractors were arrested in Santa Rosa County on charges they submitted 1,500 petitions for various campaigns in three Panhandle counties that appeared faked. Arno said his firm has cooperated in the investigation.

A Miami-Dade election official told the Pensacola News-Journal earlier this year that his office had rejected nearly 1,000 suspicious petitions. Included in the spoils were eight Amendment 6 petitions with the signatures of the names of dead voters. Amendment 6, which ARNO contractors worked on, seeks to repeal a 2000 vote to build a high-speed train statewide.

C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the Lakeland millionaire who backed the original train amendment, charged in court that the company's signature gatherers misled voters.

"We've found a ton of fraud," said Mark Wilson, senior vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which wants to rein in citizen initiatives. It also is working hard to defeat Amendment 5, which seeks to raise the minimum wage in Florida.

Campaign finance records show ARNO was paid at least $1.2-million to gather signatures for the "Derail the Bullet Train" initiative; nearly $1-million for the gambling initiative; and $365,000 for a measure that the Florida Supreme Court rejected that would have forced the Legislature to review sales tax exemptions.