A network of union-funded groups from Little Rock to Washington, D.C., working to raise the minimum wage in Arkansas have been implicated in a lawsuit alleging that operatives in the state forged notary signatures in order to get the question on November’s ballot.
The lawsuit, which has reached the Arkansas Supreme Court, is challenging the validity of a ballot question to raise the state’s minimum wage. Details in the complaint provide a window into connections between the seemingly disparate organizations.
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Those organizations are ostensibly run by Arkansans, but public records suggest that they are part of a coordinated political effort with ties to a network of Washington-based Democratic groups supportive of Hillary Clinton.
Steve Stephens, the Republican donor and activist behind the lawsuit, suspects that they are using the minimum wage issue to bolster grassroots organizing efforts ahead of a Clinton presidential run.
The ballot question proposes to raise Arkansas’ minimum wage from $6.25 to $8.50 per hour by 2015. It landed on the ballot after a local group succeeded in gathering the required number of signatures from Arkansas residents.
In December, Stephen Copley, a Methodist reverend and political activist in Little Rock, created a ballot committee called Give Arkansas a Raise Now (GARN) to push for the minimum wage hike. The group eventually gathered and submitted 64,135 signatures.
However, Arkansas’ secretary of state invalidated more than 3,000 of those signatures for failing to meet statutory requirements, putting the total below the 62,507 necessary to get the question on the ballot.
GARN was in luck: under Arkansas law, petitioners may be given 30 days to either show that signatures were rejected in error or gather enough additional ones to satisfy the law’s requirements.
On Aug. 18, the deadline for its 30-day extension, GARN submitted 130,016 signatures. The secretary of state validated 89,790 of them, more than enough to place the question on the ballot.
Stephens claims in his complaint that the secretary of state erred in offering the ballot committee an additional 30 days to gather signatures, since petitions were submitted on July 7, three days after the July 4 deadline.
However, the secretary of state contends that election deadlines can be delayed due to holidays and weekends. The July 4 deadline was itself a holiday, and fell on a Friday.
Beyond deadline issues, Stephens alleges numerous defects that he says should invalidate tens of thousands of petition signatures. They include allegations that canvassers forged a notary’s signature on thousands of petition pages.
He asked the court to appoint a "special master" to review petitions that, Stephens says, contain forged signatures, inaccurate statements of residency, and illegible text of the amendment, a copy of which must be printed on the back of each petition.
Depending on how the judge in the case acts, Stephens’ allegations could derail the ballot initiative before voters get a chance to weigh in, according to Dan Greenberg, an attorney and former Republican member of the state assembly.
"Anybody who assumes that this is some lawyer doing some crazy last minute thing trying to get this thrown off the ballot is making a mistake," Greenberg said in an interview.
"These are serious arguments that reasonably could jeopardize the ballot issue," Greenberg said, referring to the missed July 4 deadline and the allegations of forgery.
The crucial question with respect to the deadline, Greenberg said, is the extent to which the judge decides to strictly enforce that deadline.
"As a matter of law, when you miss these deadlines, even in a technical way, that’s a serious matter which can kill the entire initiative," Greenberg said.
However, "it would be within the discretion of the court to say, as a technical matter, ‘they missed the deadline, but in the real world, they substantially complied with the rules and so I’m not going to get too worried’" about a delay of one or two days.
Allegations of forgery could result in the invalidation of thousands of petition signatures, Greenberg said, potentially enough to put the total well below the 62,507 the group initially needed.
The court has appointed a special master, over Copley’s objections, to review allegations of forgery. The number of signatures potentially affected by those allegations will not be known until the court receives its findings.
Despite apparent defects in the signature-gathering process, supporters of the minimum wage hike hailed the question’s inclusion on the ballot when the secretary of state certified it in September.
Among those supporters was a Little Rock-based political consultancy called the Markham Group.
"The Markham Group is proud to be the team that helped put an increase in the Arkansas minimum wage on the ballot," the firm said on its website. It specifically credited GARN with making it happen.
News reports indicated that GARN had hired Markham to manage its campaign, but GARN never disclosed any payments to the consultancy.
Markham appears to have been hired by the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance (AIA), another group pushing the measure. Like GARN, AIA is chaired by Copley.
According to campaign finance disclosure filings AIA paid Marhham nearly $450,000 from March through June for canvassing and signature gathering.
Markham used the funds to hire canvassers, pay its own staff for work on AIA’s behalf, and take care of general administrative expenses associated with its work.
That work appears to have included collaboration with the Democratic Party of Arkansas.
In April, AIA listed $10,800 in payments to four individuals—Lance Strother, Clint Simpson, Melvin Barnes, and Alex Keith Rancifer—who were listed as contacts for a Democratic Party of Arkansas canvassing event on April 26 to gather signatures for the minimum wage ballot measure.
Rancifer was a frequent subcontractor for Markham’s AIA work. A former Bill Clinton campaign aide, he worked for U.S. Airways until March, according to his LinkedIn page. By March 13, he was receiving compensation and health insurance from Markham.
His role in the signature gathering process has come under scrutiny due to Stephens’ lawsuit. Rancifer acted as a notary for as many as half of the petitions that were eventually submitted to the secretary of state.
However, exhibits filed by Stephens’ attorney show that signatures on at least six petition pages look entirely different, though they all say Alex Rancifer and appear next to his notary stamp.
"In light of the large number of signature styles purporting to be Mr. Rancifer’s, it is apparent that other individuals were signing on behalf of Mr. Rancifer," Stephens said in his complaint. Those other individuals appear to have fraudulently notarized "likely thousands of petitions," he wrote.
AIA’s war chest throughout the canvassing process was considerable, thanks to large cash infusions from groups representing trial attorneys and the Washington, D.C., headquarters of top labor unions.
They included seven-figure contributions from unions representing teachers, engineers, painters, food service workers, laborers, carpenters, electrical workers, steelworkers, sheet metal workers, and federal, state, and municipal government employees.
GARN also received a $5,000 cash infusion from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal employees in April. That contribution comprised nearly half of its total fundraising since inception.
In addition to its $325,000 in contributions from organized labor, AIA got $25,000 from the political action committee of the trial lawyers’ lobby, the American Association for Justice.
The group spent virtually all of its sizable war chest on Markham’s services: AIA raised $449,815 and paid the consultancy $446,925, according to campaign finance reports.
On the same day, the commission received paperwork for a new ballot committee called Give Us a Raise! (GUR) that would also push for the minimum wage hike. The group’s treasurer is Markham partner Greg Hale.
Its president is national Democratic operative Brad Woodhouse. A former communications director for the Democratic National Committee, Woodhouse now helms the Democratic super PAC American Bridge and a sister organization called the American Democracy Legal Fund.
Both of those groups are parts of the sprawling political apparatus of David Brock, a conservative-turned-liberal Hillary Clinton activist.
The initial paperwork for GUR was faxed to the Arkansas Ethics Commission from the offices of Media Matters for America, another Brock outfit, according to letterhead on the scanned pages.
Media Matters, American Bridge, and other Brock groups are actively laying the groundwork for a Hillary Clinton presidential run, and Stephens suspects that their involvement in Arkansas is geared toward longer-term political objectives.
"I think this effort is the community organizing page from the 2016 Hillary/Bill playbook," he said in an email.
"Funnel excessive (in this case big union) money into a ballot measure with little opposition, use a purposefully disinterested press to disguise and fund the grassroots infrastructure for another purpose."
Since AIA dissolved, yet another group with a nearly identical name to other ballot committees involved in the effort has emerged to push the minimum wage hike.
Give Arkansas a Raise filed registration paperwork with the ethics commission on September 26. The commission processed the registration four days later.
The address listed for the group is a P.O. box at a Little Rock UPS Store. A message left at its Google Voice phone number was not returned.