Voter-fraud probe in Virginia widens

 

Virginia, US

The investigation following the arrest of a man on charges of dumping voter-registration forms last month in Harrisonburg, Virginia, has widened, with state officials probing whether a company tied to top Republican leaders had engaged in voter-registration fraud in the key battleground state, according to two people close to the case.

A former employee of Strategic Allied Consulting, a contractor for the Republican Party of Virginia, had been scheduled to appear on Tuesday of this week before a grand jury after he was charged with tossing completed registration forms into a recycling bin. But state prosecutors canceled Colin Small's grand jury testimony to gather more information, with their focus expanding to the firm that had employed Small, which is led by longtime GOP operative Nathan Sproul.

State authorities are seeking to learn whether any of Small's supervisors instructed him or any of his 40 co-workers in Virginia to ask potential voters about their political leanings during registration drives, the two sources said. Asking such questions could be a violation of state election law.

John Holloran, who along with co-counsel Justin Corder represents Small, said ethics rules prevented him from commenting on the probe. Marsha Garst, the commonwealth attorney overseeing the case, said Friday that she could not describe the nature of the case, but said, "This is a very important investigation to the state, and we intend to prosecute Mr. Small to the fullest extent."

Sproul's firms and political consulting operations have faced questions over the past eight years, including investigations and formal charges of suppressing Democratic votes, destroying voter registrations and other election violations.

The charges against Small came a month after voter-registration work by a Sproul company prompted a fraud investigation in Florida. Nine Florida counties reported in September that hundreds of voter-registration forms submitted by Sproul's firm contained irregularities such as suspicious, conflicting signatures and missing information.

A spokesman for Sproul, David Leibowitz, said Sproul and his company are cooperating with election authorities in Florida and Virginia and "will continue to do everything within our power to uncover any unethical or illegal activity."

After the Florida investigation became public, the Republican National Committee said it was severing ties with Strategic Allied Consulting. At that time, Strategic stopped overseeing registration workers in Virginia and Pinpoint, Strategic's staffing contractor, began overseeing the work.

Investigators have gathered information showing that Small asserted that he worked for Strategic to voters, according to two people close to the probe.

Leibowitz emphasized that at the time of the arrest in Virginia, "Small had no connection to Sproul and the company was no longer working in the state."

He said Sproul is accustomed to hearing complaints about his tactics. "As a political operative you get accused of all kinds of things by all sides. This kind of allegation has been investigated and he [Sproul] has been cleared time and time again."

Companies created or led by Sproul have been paid more than $3 million by the Republican party during this election campaign. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign paid Sproul's firm $71,000 late last year for "field consulting."

American Crossroads, the political organization that Republican operative Karl Rove helped found, paid Sproul's firms $1.5 million in the week before the 2010 midterm elections for get-out-the-vote efforts and voter phone calls, according to a review of election records.

In total, companies led by Sproul have received $21 million from Republican campaign committees and affiliated interest groups for voter outreach work since 2004. Much of the 2012 payments came from the national party to pay for voter registration in the key states of Florida, Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia.

Small, 23, of Phoenixville, Pa., was arrested Oct. 18 and charged with eight felonies and five misdemeanors involving election fraud.

Rob Johnson, the manager of a local discount goods store, said he had seen a man toss a bag into the store's cardboard recycling bin and then had found that the bag contained registration forms. Johnson said in an interview that he called authorities the next day when he spotted the man's car, with Pennsylvania plates, parked at the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Republican Party headquarters.

The commonwealth's attorney had planned to question Small about his employers and training before a special multi-jurisdiction grand jury based in Staunton, Va., according to the two people familiar with the probe. But state officials changed course when they realized that Virginia law would give Small immunity from election-law charges if he were questioned about his superiors.

His first formal court date, largely a formality to determine whether he understands his rights to counsel, is now scheduled for Monday.

- - -

Alice Crites and T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.

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