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Arizona signature firm at center of failed Adam’s recall

The head of a signature-gathering firm behind the failed attempt to recall Assemblyman Anthony Adams has been involved in several controversial campaigns in the past. And now, recall advocates hint, they may take him to court.

Signature gatherer Derrick Lee has numerous satisfied customers in his home state of Arizona, California and elsewhere. He has also been involved in several failed and near-failed signature drives. Several people in his home state of Arizona also charge that he has led efforts to obstruct opposing petition gatherers.

Lee made headlines in California last week when a much-heralded recall drive against Adams, R-Hesperia, fizzled out when recall supporters failed to turn in enough valid signatures. The Committee to Recall Adams reportedly paid over $100,000 to Lee’s company to gather the 35,825 valid signatures to get a recall of Adams on the ballot.

The company turned in 58,000 names. In Los Angeles County, 68 percent of signatures in a sample were found to be valid.

But in San Bernardino County, which represents a larger portion of the 59th Assembly District, only 661 of 1,339 sampled signatures were verified. This included 214 people not registered in the district. The validity rate of 49 percent was actually weighted down to 42 after penalties were assessed for duplicate signatures. As of Wednesday morning, Lee said he was “still looking” at the situation and trying to prove they had enough valid signatures.

The results were well short of the 70 percent validity rate that recall campaign advisor Mike Schroeder said had been guaranteed contractually by Lee’s firm, Campaign Finance.

“What we know is that either something irregular happened there [during signature gathering], or something very irregular happened at the San Bernardino Registrar’s office,” Schroeder said. “I don’t want to cast aspersions or point a finger at anybody until we have more information.”

But, he added, “I’ve never seen a 42 percent verification rate from a professional signature gathering firm before.”

San Bernardino County Registrar Kari Verjil said Schroeder, Lee and other recall officials were in her offices on Nov. 24, a week after the failed recall, reviewing the signatures.

“Under the law, they’re allowed to view these,” Verjil said. But she added, “We are confident in our process. Their recourse at this time is to take legal action.”

That legal action, however, may be against Lee and his company. Speaking on the John & Ken radio show on Nov. 20, Schroeder appeared to open the door for a possible lawsuit against the firm. Schroeder said that if it turned out that Lee’s company had been negligent in their signature gathering, he would try to return money to donors who had given to the recall campaign.

Others are baffled by the recall’s failure to qualify. “There was a huge divergence between the two major counties in the validity rate,” said John Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association, which gave $15,000 to the recall effort through it’s No New Taxes campaign fund. “Statistically, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The only person or group who gave more to the campaign was Schroeder himself. The former California Republican Party chairman personally gave $26,500.

Schroeder said that he and others in California had worked successfully with Lee before. In 2003, Lee got the signatures for the successful recall of Nativo Lopez from the Santa Ana School Board for what critics said was a failure to enforce Proposition 228, which banned bilingual education programs.

Jenny Breslin said she hired Lee earlier this year to gather signatures in southern California for initiatives on insurance, redistricting and marijuana. She said she’d known him for years and praised his work in bringing in thousands of valid signatures.
“There have been no problems whatsoever,” Breslin said.

Lee has been in the signature gathering business since the late 1980s, according to a 2000 profile in the Phoenix New Times. The story also called him “the most powerful political figure you’ve never heard of” and said “It is impossible to find Lee Petition Management unless you know where to look.”

Indeed, it is difficult to find the company online or via directory assistance. He has also worked under the company name Campaign Finance Company LLC. When asked the specific name of the company doing to the work for the Adams recall, Lee replied: “Not important. Next question.”

Sacramento campaign consultant Phil Giarrizzo noted of Lee, “His company has had several different names.” He hired Lee earlier this year after they came “highly recommended,” he said. But the results were not what he’d hoped.

“His validity rate was exceptionally low,” Giarrizzo said.  “There were a number of duplicate signatures submitted. That carries a significant penalty.”

Giarrizzo said his firm was able to get more signatures and salvage the effort, relating to probation officers and binding arbitration, and pass it in Sacramento County in March as Measure A. But he won’t be working with Lee again and that he was “surprised” when he heard he’d been hired for the Adams recall.

“I’d refer him to all of my arch enemies,” Giarrizzo joked.

Lee and his company have had some problems in recent years, including the failure to get enough valid signatures in at least one campaign in Arizona. In 2000, the firm made headlines when it almost failed to get the Reform Party on the Presidential ballot, with fewer than half the signatures it gathered being found valid.

Several people in Arizona who have worked on the opposite side as Lee said he tried to stop their petition gathering efforts using trickery and intimidation. Many of these allegations come from opponents of the Hanover project, a six acre, 230 luxury apartment complex which local activists fought back in 2007 and 2008.

Darlene Peterson, 79, said that she and a woman in her 60s were gathering signatures for a voter measure to oppose the project in early 2008 when they were approached and surrounded by young men she said were hired by Lee.

“When they saw people coming towards us or we went towards them, they would get between us,” Peterson said. “It was really hard to get around to get signatures.”

When they moved to a different local, some of the same men would be there, she said.

“They were going everyplace,” Peterson said. “Everybody had cell phones. I never saw so many cell phones in my life. If we went in front of a church, three people came.”

Another person involved in the campaign against Hanover, Sue Wood, said that men hired by Lee tried to provoke her husband into a fistfight. Yet another, Tom Giller, said he saw Lee out on the streets directing these men.

“He had a couple of guys,” Giller said. “He’d make sure they hadn’t taken a shower in a week of two, and they’d go stand on either side of these little old ladies.”

Another local activist, John Washington, said he encountered these tactics on both the Hanover campaign and an earlier, failed effort to block a project called Los Arcos. Washington also said he witnessed Lee personally directing these efforts, including a March 2008 incident where four “goons” confronted Giller.

“Their entire effort was based on block
ing,” Washington said. “They were quite intimidating folks.”

Lee confirmed that he worked for the owners of the Hanover project, but denied he used intimidation or any other illegal tactics.

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