Newport says petition business in Peotter recall attempt might have violated state election law; local rules might be tightened

Two boxes filled with 10,684 petitions wait to be counted by the Newport Beach city clerk on on Frid
Two boxes filled with recall petitions against Newport Beach Councilman Scott Peotter wait to be counted last fall.
(File Photo)

An investigation by the city of Newport Beach into allegations of petition fraud during last year’s unsuccessful attempt to recall Councilman Scott Peotter did not find violations of local code, but the city suggests the petition management firm might have slipped up under state election law — a claim the business denies.

The city said it appears that PCI Consultants Inc., the Calabasas-based firm contracted by the Committee to Recall Scott Peotter to circulate its petitions, did not provide signature gatherers with instructions intended to prevent fraud and abuse, as required by the California Elections Code. That includes producing a signed statement pledging not to “knowingly or willfully allow the signatures for this initiative to be used for any purpose other than qualification of the measure for the ballot” and acknowledging that it is a misdemeanor to violate that.

A lack of written pledges against signature abuse would not invalidate any signatures on the petition, according to state code.

Newport Beach municipal code does not include those provisions, and the City Council on Tuesday will consider adding a section to the code requiring that the state-mandated instructions be on file with the city.

“This requirement places a very minimal obligation upon signature gatherers and helps the city protect voters and the integrity of the election process,” City Manager Dave Kiff wrote in a staff report for Tuesday’s meeting.

PCI President Angelo Paparella said Friday that the city had not told him of its conclusion, but he said it’s false.

“We comply with all elections codes,” he said. “We always do and we always have.”

The Orange County district attorney’s office seized the recall petitions from the county registrar of voters office in January over concerns about “potential irregularities.” Recall organizers have said they believe an outside paid petition circulator may have forged signatures.

A few weeks later, the City Council invoked its charter-authorized power of subpoena to conduct a parallel investigation and filed an order for Paparella to hand over documents related to the recall signature gathering. The council also authorized subpoenas for the treasurer of the Committee to Recall Scott Peotter, the group’s campaign consultant and a firm that helped the campaign with its reporting requirements. Ultimately, however, the city only subpoenaed PCI.

Supporters of the probe said they wanted to see whether local or state laws had been broken and to identify possible ways to strengthen the integrity of local elections. Recall organizers and their lawyers said the examination could impinge on constitutionally protected communications among activists and amounted to political retaliation.

The city, a non-prosecutorial agency, will turn over the PCI documents to the district attorney’s office for its investigation. Paparella said his company is complying with the county.

About a month before the DA’s office seized the petitions, the registrar’s office announced it had validated 8,339 of the 10,696 recall signatures submitted. That was 106 shy of the 8,445 — representing 15% of Newport’s registered voters — needed to force a special recall election.

Tuesday’s council meeting starts at 4:30 p.m. with a study session, followed by the regular session at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 100 Civic Center Drive.

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