The Lake County State’s Attorney’s office has confirmed that two of State Senator Terry Link’s paid nomination petition circulators, Jerry D. Knight and Kenneth Davison, were indicted today by a grand jury on multiple counts of forgery and perjury. This is the first set of indictments resulting from a joint investigation by the Lake County States’s Attorney and the Office of the State Appellate Prosecutor concerning allegations of forgeries of the signatures of both living and dead people on Senator Link’s petitions that were needed to place him on the ballot for the 30th Senate District race, where he faces GOP challenger Keith Gray this November.
Knight and Davison were Link’s primary petition circulators, and were responsible for acquiring nearly 2,700 of the 3,378 total signatures on Link’s nomination petitions (1,000 valid signatures were needed to place Link on the ballot). Knight and Davison also acquired signatures for numerous other Democratic candidates, including all Democrats running for county-wide office in Lake (which includes the Dem state’s attorney and circuit court clerk challengers, and the incumbent coroner and recorder of deeds).
Team America has been following this story closely since we broke it in mid-November 2007, but for those of you just catching up, the allegations of petition fraud were first brought to light by Link’s democratic primary challenger, Jerry Johnson, former mayor of North Chicago. Johnson’s campaign discovered that several of the purported “signatures” of supposedly registered voters were those of dead people, including a former North Chicago police chief, a political editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and a member of TA’s former Rotary club. Johnson also noted other suspect names, such as that of Link’s GOP challenger from the last election, Shields Township Supervisor Charles “Chuck” Fitzgerald.
While Johnson filed a challenge to the legitimacy of these and many other signatures appearing on Link’s petitions before the State Board of Elections, Johnson did not initially have sufficient evidence of a ‘pattern of fraud’ to include this claim in time to meet the extremely short objection filing deadline. Thus, the SBE rejected certain individual signatures that were obviously false and invalid, but the board did not consider any ‘pattern of fraud’ allegations that would have thrown out all of the signatures collected by Knight and Davison, and therefore allowed Link to remain on the ballot for the February 2008 primary election.
As noted above, Knight and Davison were responsible for acquiring signatures of around 2700 people, out of around 3400 signatures filed by Link’s campaign. This amounted to over 100 pages (at 25 signatures a page) out of 139 pages of petitions filed, or over 75% of Link’s signatures. Given that Link required 1,000 valid signatures to remain on the ballot, had the broader fraud allegations been made and proven before the SBE, Link would have been removed from the ballot if all pages “circulated” by Knight and Davison had been rejected.
Nevertheless, Johnson and other concerned citizens (including, no surprise, members of the Lake County GOP) continued to review Link’s petitions for irregularities. Johnson’s campaign discovered that not only did the names of dead people appear on the Link petitions, a curious pattern emerged where the names on many of the petition pages were listed in alphabetical or reverse-alphabetical order. In addition, mistakes such as misspelling a voter's signature (hard to misspell one's own name, if the sig is legitimate) and transposing the address of a voter with the one that appeared directly above or below the entry in the Lake County telephone directory led to the conclusion that these signatures were generated by “roundtabling,” an old election trick where petition pages are passed around a table by a group of people to forge names out of the phone directory or old voter lists. The News-Sun decried this revelation and called for Senator Link to investigate the allegations. Senator Link, however, took no action.
The Lake County State’s Attorney began to investigate the allegations as a potential criminal matter in December 2007. At the time, Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller said that “In preliminary interviews, every person we talked to said it wasn’t their signature.” (Lake County News-Sun, 12/21/07). Even if we assume that Link had no knowledge of the alleged fraudulent activity, despite calls from the press and concerned citizens to investigate and take action, Senator Link chose to deny culpability and bury his head in the sand. At various times, Link called the accusations of fraud "nonsense," laughed them off and accused someone of "playing games," said "they’re shooting in the dark" or perhaps it was "a bunch of Republican operatives trying to interfere in a Democratic primary." (News-Sun article, 11/17/07). At the height of Link's hubris, he boldly stated that since "I never personally circulated one petition, so there's nothing [the state's attorney] can do to me."
Well, those words may come back to haunt Link.
Now that Knight and Davison have been indicted, Link has some interesting choices to make. Clearly, Link resisted acknowledging the issue and took no action himself that might have resulted in him having to admit that his petitions were irreparably flawed, and have to remove himself from the primary election that was held in February 2008. That would have been the honorable thing to do, and notably, was exactly what candidate James Gumm, the incumbent Milton Township assessor, did when he discovered that political operative Rodney McCulloch paid circulators to circulate petitions, which signatures the circulators then forged.
Even now, if Link tries to distance himself from the illegal acts of his paid petition circulators and tries to belatedly condemn their actions, he is essentially admitting that his candidacy is illegitimate, and he should withdraw from the senate race. Link is likely to again resist such demands, but the public pressure on Link as a result of this scandal may reach unbearable proportions, given Link’s position. Even throwing Knight and Davison completely under the bus at this point may not be enough. And, there's always the chance that Knight and Davison will roll over on Link and his right-hand man, "Sneaky" Pete Couvall, who was the one who actually hired and paid Knight and Davison to "collect" signatures.
This scandal may not stop with Link, either, as not only did other Dems have petitions circulated by Link, the Lake County Dems have stood behind Link, welcoming his assistance and money, and re-electing him Dem County Chairman this past March. Tenth Congressional candidate Dan Seals, for example, prominently touts Link's endorsement of him on Seals' website. Wonder how long it will take for that to get scrubbed, and other Dems to disavow Link? Will Lauren Beth Gash, Susan Garrett and the other Dem "do-gooders" finally seize this opportunity to depose Link from county leadership?
Folks, stay tuned for much, much more on this story in the weeks and months to come.
UPDATED 1:22 p.m.: The Daily Herald already has a web story up. Charles Zaler, an attorney for the state Appellate Prosecutor's Office stated in the article that "There is no evidence that the senator had any knowledge of these actions or condoned them. He has responded fully to our inquires in this matter."
That's nice, but doesn't let Link off the hook for failing to investigate last winter, before he was elected as the Democratic nominee in the primary.
The buck stops with you, Senator.
UPDATED x2 2:40 pm.: GOP challenger Keith Gray sent out this press release in the wake of today's indictments, calling on Senator Link to remove himself from the November ballot.
UPDATED x3 2:42 p.m.: Here's a Tribune web story.
UPDATED x4 4:19 pm.: And the Pioneer Press.
UPDATED x5 4:37 p.m.: And the News-Sun.