R.I. election panel opts not to delve back into Matos signature papers. For now.
Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos sits in the front row for the brief discussion during the Board of Elections meeting in Cranston Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Curent)
That was fast.
After monthslong discussion of signature fraud on Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos’ congressional campaign nomination papers, a state elections panel put the controversy to bed in minutes.
For now, at least. The Rhode Island Board of Elections (BOE) did not officially close the book on the signature scandal, taking no action after two failed motions at its meeting Tuesday afternoon. One failed proposal, from member Louis DeSimone, would have asked the signature gatherers for Matos’ campaign to testify to the board under oath in a future, quasi-judicial hearing. The second failed motion, by member Marcela Betancur, would have eliminated the possibility of issuing subpoenas at any future point.
Both motions did not get the required second vote to even open discussion.
Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General continues to probe the signature papers for possible criminal charges. Review is ongoing, with no public updates or end date available, Brian Hodge, a spokesperson for the attorney general, said in an email on Tuesday.
Matos, who sat in the front row for the brief discussion, again stressed her cooperation with the ongoing attorney general investigation in comments to reporters.
“No one more than me wants to find out what happened,” she said.
Matos has repeatedly distanced herself from the hired signature collectors whose campaign papers were found to have fake signatures – including signatures of dead people – in at least three municipalities. Those collectors should be brought in to testify, Matos said, but added that other people who collected signatures for her campaign – including her husband Patrick Ward – should not face that scrutiny because it might dissuade volunteers in any future campaign.
No one more than me wants to find out what happened.
– Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos on allegations of fraud over her 1st Congressional District campaign nomination papers
“This is not just about my campaign, this is affecting every future campaign,” she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island shared similar concerns in a letter to the BOE urging them not to subpoena signature gatherers.
“Especially since a criminal investigation is ongoing, even the most conscientious signature collector, facing such an interrogation, could be wracked with second thoughts as to whether one of dozens of signatures they collected may have been signed outside their presence by, for example, a person bringing the nomination paper into another room for their spouse to sign,” Steven Brown, ACLU executive director, wrote in the Aug. 7 letter. “They will have to think twice about openly testifying, fearful of possible perjury penalties if, say, another candidate uses this investigation as an opportunity to find a voter who can claim they signed a nomination paper outside that person’s presence.”
Brown also pointed to a prior BOE of Matos’ campaign papers, which affirmed 726 legitimate signatures, putting her well above the 500-signature minimum to earn a spot on the Sept. 5 primary ballot.
Betancur said this letter influenced her opinion that the BOE did not need to pursue the matter.
“I would hate to cast aspersions on sign collectors that acted in good faith and did nothing wrong,” board member Michael Connors said in agreement.
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, disagreed with that logic.
“That’s not a good enough reason to drop it altogether,” he said. “They need to get to the bottom of what happened in order to fix the problem.”
DeSimone also stressed the importance of correcting a “flawed” signature gathering process, which puts pressure on potentially uninformed volunteers to rack up names on a paper in a short period of time.
“We need to take it more seriously as a board than we have in the past,” he said. “The trust of the electorate is being given to someone who collects nomination papers.”
Matos, for her part, said she plans to only entrust “people who care about me” to collect signatures on her behalf in any future campaign.
“My husband said he would handle all of them next time,” she said with a laugh.”
Meanwhile, the BOE will consider proposing changes to the signature collection process as part of its upcoming recommendations to the Rhode Island General Assembly. But DiSimone also said he may ask the board to reconsider its own investigation of Matos; signatures at a future meeting, perhaps after the attorney general investigation ends.
“The election is over but I don’t think the issue is,” he said.
Board member Randy Jackvony, who arrived to the meeting late and missed discussion about the signature papers, also said in later comments that he would support a board investigation.
Also Tuesday, the state election board met behind closed doors for 90 minutes to discuss a personnel matter and one campaign finance violation. No votes were taken regarding personnel.
The board voted unanimously to enter into a consent agreement with Jacy Northup, a former South Kingstown Town Council Democratic candidate, based on campaign finance violations throughout her 2022 campaign. Under the agreement, Northup agreed to forfeit $297 in campaign contributions which she had previously failed to report. She also agreed to let the board complete the five campaign finance reports she failed to submit during the 2022 election period, and to close out her existing campaign finance account.
Board member Jennifer Johnson did not attend the meeting.
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