By Gale Holland Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — A dollar goes a long way on skid row, Los Angeles Police Capt. Marc Reina said.

So investigators were not completely surprised to find homeless people there taking $1, food or cigarettes to forge signatures of registered voters on petitions to qualify initiatives for the ballot, police said.

Now, an LAPD crackdown this year on suspected election fraud on skid row has yielded eight felony arrests, including three last week, booking records show.

Arrests in May were bumped down to misdemeanor violations. The district attorney is still deciding how to charge the recent cases.

“They paid individuals to sign the names,” said Officer Deon Joseph, the senior lead officer on skid row. “That’s an assault on our democracy.”

State officials said petition signature scams are not widespread in California, but Joseph said they pop up periodically on skid row.

People hired to get initiatives on the ballot are often paid by signature, typically $1 to $2, although a recent glut of proposed ballot initiatives has pushed the rate as high as $6 a signature, officials said.

But they can’t pay people for signatures, and having them forge signatures off registered voters lists is an obvious violation. Gov. Jerry Brown this month vetoed a bill banning per-signature payment for petition circulators, saying the law could enhance ballot control by “the wealthiest interests.”

Dean Logan, head of Los Angeles County elections, said he doubted forgeries would get by his office, which manually checks petition signatures against those on registration forms.

But Logan said he was concerned about the effect of the arrests on public confidence in the electoral system.

“It’s not really voter fraud, in terms of illegal voting and manipulation,” Logan said. “But I am certainly concerned about any activity that causes voters to lose faith in the process.”

Reina, the LAPD captain, said petition signature scammers have been tough to catch and bring down.

“They come on different days, at different times, or set up late at night,” Reina said.

In May, Christine Hooks, a signature gatherer, set up a card table at 6th and San Julian streets, Joseph said, and opened for business at 5:50 a.m., when homeless people were breaking down their tents and likely to be the only ones around.

Hooks, 30, who police said was homeless, allegedly told them she had downloaded voter registration lists off the internet, Joseph said. The lists were of people from from Orange and San Diego counties and Monrovia, Joseph said.

Hooks was later sentenced to 12 days in county jail on a misdemeanor election code violation, said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the city attorney.

Richard Howard, 62, of Harbor City was sentenced to 60 days in jail on a similar charge. Charges were dismissed against Harold Bennett, 53, of Harvard Heights; Louis Wise, 36, of Compton; and Bernard Graham, 50, of Pima, Ariz., according to Wilcox.

“The message got sent this is not big deal,” Joseph said. “They’ll go right back out and do the same thing.”

Using undercover officers and security camera footage, police arrested Kirkland Kauzava Washington, Kevin Clark Torrance and Ashley Owen on Sept. 21 on suspicion of felony election fraud.

Washington, 38, of South Los Angeles allegedly set up a card table that evening outside the Midnight Mission, where homeless people line up for meals or beds, Reina said.

Torrance, 43, who gave his address at a single-room occupancy apartment on skid row, and Owen, 29, who police said was homeless, allegedly were paid to forge voters’ signatures on Washington’s ballot petition, police said.

Prosecutors have asked for further investigation before deciding on charges against the three suspects, a district attorney’s office spokesman said. The petition in the September case was to qualify a measure to overturn a recent decision eliminating cash bail from the criminal justice system, Joseph said.

The petitions related to the May arrests concerned clean air and water, Long Beach hotel workers and a Sheriff’s Department oversight commission, police said.

Investigators said they have found no connection to the lobbyists that hired the signature collectors or to the political campaigns behind the initiatives. The signature gatherers do not appear to be politically motivated, Joseph said.

“The lure is the money,” Joseph said.

Joseph said he has seen homeless people working as petition circulators and fraudulent signers. Even a homeless person out for a buck or a meal should be prosecuted, if only to deter future crime, he said.

“Whether people are homeless or rich, no one is above the law,” Joseph said. “If they do it here, they will do it to any other disenfranchised group.”

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