WASHINGTON — The Republican National Committee has abruptly dropped ties to a firm running a major get-out-the-vote effort in seven swing states after Florida prosecutors started an investigation into possible fraud in voter registration forms.
Working through state parties, the RNC has sent more than $3.1 million this year to Strategic Allied Consulting, a company formed in June by Nathan Sproul, an Arizona political consultant. Sproul has operated other firms that have been accused in the past of improprieties designed to help Republican candidates, including dumping registration forms filled out by Democrats. None of those allegations have led to criminal charges.
Strategic Allied Consulting was hired to do voter registration drives in Florida, Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina and Nevada, and had been planning get-out-the-vote drives in Ohio and Wisconsin, according to Sproul. Lincoln Strategy Group, another Sproul company, was paid about $70,000 by Mitt Romney's campaign during the primaries to gather signatures.
In Florida's Palm Beach County, election officials turned over 106 forms to prosecutors after discovering forgeries and other problems. Officials in other counties are now reviewing voter registration forms turned in by the state GOP.
Sproul said he created Strategic Allied Consulting at the RNC's request because the party wanted to avoid being publicly linked to the past allegations. The firm was set up at a Virginia address, and Sproul does not show up on the corporate paperwork.
"In order to be able to do the job that the state parties were hiring us to do, the [RNC] asked us to do it with a different company's name, so as to not be a distraction from the false information put out in the Internet," Sproul said.
The RNC's rapid decision to distance itself comes as Republicans around the country have sought to make voter fraud an issue, in part by pressing for voter identification laws.
Sean Spicer, spokesman for the RNC, said the party had "zero tolerance" for voter fraud and cut ties to the firm Wednesday. "We severed our relationship," he said. "We acted swiftly and boldly."
Spicer said he had no knowledge of Sproul's assertion that the RNC wanted to conceal his identity.
In Florida, the state party fired the firm Tuesday after election workers in Palm Beach County discovered numerous registration forms that appeared to be filled out in the same handwriting, some with incorrect addresses and birthdays. Some Republicans were simply re-registered as Republican. Some forms switched voters' addresses or requested new voter identification cards. Some changed party registration from Democratic or independent to Republican, said Susan Bucher, county elections supervisor.
Her staff identified about 20 suspicious forms, all of which came from the Republican Party of Florida, she said. After she contacted local Republicans, a supervisor for Strategic Allied Consulting identified 106 forms, all apparently filled out by one worker. Bucher turned them over to Palm Beach County prosecutors, who have begun a criminal investigation.
"The majority of them have the Republican Party checked, but not all," she said.
Spicer said creating fraudulent voter registration forms would not help the Republican Party. "If you don't do it right, it doesn't assist us in any way," he said.
Sproul said his company had a vigorous quality-control system, one that includes running a criminal background check on all employees and cataloging voter cards with a serial number that identifies who collected each registration. That quality check, Sproul said, enabled the company to quickly determine the individual who submitted the problematic cards in Palm Beach County.
On Thursday, election supervisors in other Florida counties said they were checking forms submitted by the Florida Republican Party for possible problems.
"It's not just Palm Beach County," wrote Paul Lux, supervisor of elections in Okaloosa County, in an email to other supervisors. Problematic forms also showed up in nearby Santa Rosa County, he said.
In an interview, Lux said Santa Rosa County found bogus signatures, phony addresses and incorrect birthdays — along with some names that seemed to match death records.
"A number of dead people were trying to register to vote," Lux said.
Sproul said he had heard about problems elsewhere in Florida and said his firm had offered to assist elections officials.
Unauthorized changes of address could present problems when voters try to cast ballots. Floridians used to be able to change or correct their addresses at the polls. But under a recent change in the state's election law, voters whose registration is in a different county from the polling place must use provisional ballots — which are much less likely to be counted.
"If they're changing the addresses out of county, it is potentially disenfranchisement," said Daniel A. Smith, professor of election law at the University of Florida.
Sproul is a fixture in Arizona Republican politics. He is former head of the Arizona Christian Coalition and a veteran of a number of GOP campaigns. For three years, he was executive director of the state party.
In 2004, a company he started was paid millions by Republicans to register voters. Employees in Oregon, Nevada, West Virginia and Pennsylvania alleged they were told to register only Republicans. One worker in Las Vegas said he watched a supervisor tear up Democratic registrations. The Justice Department started an investigation, which did not lead to any charges, Sproul said.
But the record of allegations makes Sproul a lightning rod in political circles.
"There's no question if the name Sproul & Associates appeared on any filings, that would immediately raise red flags among Democrats," said Rick Hasen, an election law expert who teaches at UC Irvine.
The RNC did not pay Strategic Allied Consulting directly. Instead, Republican state parties, all in key battleground states, paid the firm soon after receiving nearly identical amounts from the national organization. The link between Strategic Allied Consulting and Sproul was first uncovered in late August by a liberal blogger in North Carolina.
Sproul said he resented the Florida party's decision to fire his firm, but had no hard feelings against the Republican National Committee. "I don't begrudge the national committee one bit," he said. "They had a distraction created for them by a state party. If I were in their shoes, I would do the same thing."