State probes petitions to impose term limits

October 14, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Tanya Jones | JoAnna Daemmrich and Tanya Jones,Sun Staff Writers

Maryland's state prosecutor has begun a criminal investigation into the possible forgery of petitions for a referendum to impose term limits on Baltimore elected officials.

Billed as a grass-roots crusade to phase out "career politicians," the local petition drive was heavily financed by a national advocacy group that is under scrutiny in four states for allegedly using fraudulently obtained signatures to get term-limits initiatives on the ballot.

U.S. Term Limits gave $18,400 to the campaign run by C. Nelson Warfield, a Montgomery County lawyer who worked for the Reagan White House, and Penn Parking owner Lisa Renshaw, who ran unsuccessfully in the 1992 Republican primary for Maryland's 1st Congressional District. The group also sent a staff member to Baltimore to train those collecting signatures -- who earned a fee for every signature collected.

The investigation by the state prosecutor was prompted by a complaint by the city's Board of Elections, which discovered widespread irregularities with the signatures. Some appeared to forged and others were from non-city residents, city officials said yesterday.

In late June, Morning Sunday, a Waverly community activist, responded to an ad by U.S. Term Limits and was enlisted to help the local group, called Marylanders for Term Limits. Ms. Sunday set up a storefront office on 31st Street and began hiring people to canvass the city.

In two months, the paid activists had gathered 29,748 signatures, three times the number needed to have the initiative placed on the November ballot. If the measure passes, the mayor, comptroller and 19-member City Council could serve no more than two four-year terms.

Baltimore's Board of Elections spent hours counting and comparing signatures. Thousands had to be thrown out because they were from residents outside the city limits.

Election officials concluded that 10,034 appeared to be valid and put the referendum question on the ballot for the general election. But after examining the petitions and finding the irregularities, the elections board turned them over to State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli.

His investigation comes at a time when the group, which has been linked to the Libertarian party, is under fire for its methods in obtaining signatures.

Roll Call, a weekly paper that covers Congress, has reported that criminal investigations are under way in Nebraska, North Dakota, Utah and Oklahoma, to determine whether signatures were forged or obtained out-of-state.

Meanwhile, a radio station in Oklahoma revealed the name of a state supreme court justice had been forged on a petition.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke sharply criticized the campaign yesterday, saying the petitioners used "non-city voters to sign the petitions" and "hid their interest in this matter."

"I'm incensed that the out-of-state Republicans and their local allies are perpetuating a fraud on our citizens," said Mr. Schmoke, who is seeking a third term as mayor. "Regardless of how one feels about term limits, the way in which these outsiders have been able to get this thing on the ballot is distasteful."

Meanwhile, a Northeast Baltimore couple has filed suit to keep the measure off the ballot. Sherman S. Merrill and his wife, Barbara, argue term limits are unconstitutional and the initiative to amend the city charter is too vague.

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan is expected to decide the matter this morning.

In court yesterday, John C. Armor, a lawyer who described himself as "a scholar in residence" with U.S. Term Limits, argued the petitions were clearly worded. "The constant drumbeat of the opposition to term limits is to file suit because they know they're never going to win in election."

In addition to the heavy support from U.S. Term Limits, the Maryland campaign also received $10,000 from former U.S. Ambassador to Austria Ronald S. Lauder of the Estee Lauder cosmetics dynasty, who lost in the 1989 Republican mayoral primary in New York City.

Mr. Warfield, who counts Mr. Lauder among his clients, says he got involved in Baltimore after being impressed by last year's success in imposing term limits in New York.

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