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Port: Term limits petition circulator admits to payment based on number of signatures collected

"If you reached a certain level you got an hourly rate that was increased," paid petition circulator Charles Tuttle said during a recent radio interview, referring to increased pay for term limits petitioners based on the number of signatures they collected.

PHOTO: Term Limits ballot measure petition circulator
In this reader-submitted photo, a circulator for a proposed constitutional amendment that would implement term limits in North Dakota uses signs that falsely claim the petition is about term limits for Congress. (Courtesy photo)
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MINOT, N.D. — According to the organizers of a term limits amendment recently kept off the statewide ballot by Secretary of State Al Jaeger, they've been done an injustice.

They're hatching conspiracy theories about politicians who contrived an excuse to keep the issue away from the voters. “I find it very hard to believe there were actually 29,000 signatures that were not certifiable," said state Rep. Jeff Hoverson , a Republican from Minot who is on the sponsoring committee for the measure. "From what I know so far, this is going to come out looking bad for the secretary of state. Something is just not right. We will find out the truth.”

Scott Tillman, a spokesman for U.S. Term Limits, the out-of-state political organization that, per public disclosures , has reported hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to signature collectors, was less circumspect in his criticism.

“Here we have a 30-year secretary of state and state attorney general conspiring to bully, harass and threaten ordinary people who want nothing more than to increase accountability in government,” Tillman said . “This attempt to avoid certification of the petition is a politically motivated crusade and totally without merit."

Are Drew Wrigley, whose Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents were involved in reviewing the signatures, and Al Jaeger, who has no dog in the term limits fight after announcing his retirement at the beginning of this election cycle, really just making things up in pursuit of some political agenda against term limits?

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Based on comments by Charles Tuttle, who shows up in campaign finance disclosures as having been directly paid by U.S. Term Limits, at least some of the problems flagged by Jaeger and the BCI are very real.

According to the letter Jaeger sent ballot measure committee chairman Jared Hendrix, of the more than 29,000 signatures disqualified, more than 10,000 were dismissed due to "inadequate signatures," a category that includes signatures collected by circulators who were paid based on the number of signatures collected.

Tuttle, in a recent radio interview that he live-streamed on his Facebook page , admitted that circulators were paid based on how many signatures they collected.

"If you reached a certain level you got an hourly rate that was increased," Tuttle said.

Through my own reporting, I can add some more context, though it's not specifically related to the term limits measure.

Roland Riemers is a political activist who has been campaigning, unsuccessfully, for various elected offices for decades. He often gets access to the ballot by collecting signatures, something for which he has paid Mr. Tuttle.

I spoke with Riemers on Monday, March 21, and he told me Tuttle charged him per signature. "Yeah, usually five dollars per signature," he said when I asked him. He said he's struck a deal with Tuttle to collect signatures for a campaign he hopes to run for North Dakota's U.S. House seat, but that he hasn't paid him for that work yet.

He also told me that petitioners he's worked with get around the state's prohibition on paying per signature by "basing the number of hours they worked on the number of signatures."

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The greatest cost of this scandal to our state isn't measured in dollars so much as lost trust in our public servants.

"For every law they've got they'll find a lawyer to get around it," he told me.

I attempted to call Mr. Tuttle for comment, and texted with him briefly, but he did not respond to my questions about Riemers' claims.

It's not clear, from my reading of the law, that basing hourly pay on the number of signatures collected, which is what Tuttle described doing during his radio interview, is an actual workaround.

The relevant section of the North Dakota Century Code is 16.1-01-12, titled "Election offenses."

Subsection "j" deals with paying for signatures and reads: "It is unlawful for an individual, measure committee ... or other organization to ... Pay or offer to pay any individual, measure committee, or other organization, or receive payment or agree to receive payment, on a basis related to the number of signatures obtained for circulating an initiative, referendum, or recall petition."

A violation of this subsection is considered a class "A" misdemeanor.

It is also a valid reason to disqualify the signatures collected.

North Dakota Century Code excerpt
An excerpt of section 16.1-01-12 of the North Dakota Century Code which deals with election offenses.<br/>
Screenshot

To be clear, the law is not just a prohibition on paying per signature. It is a prohibition on paying petition circulators "on a basis related to the number of signatures obtained."

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Remember what Tuttle said in his radio interview: "If you reached a certain level you got an hourly rate that was increased."

Mr. Tuttle, Mr. Hoverson, and Mr. Tillman may not like this law. They may think it's stupid and ill-advised. They may even be thinking of challenging it in court.

But it is the law, and has been for decades.

Jaeger and Wrigley only enforced. It's the term limits folks who, apparently, decided not to follow it.

And remember, pay based on the number of signatures collected was just one of several reasons Jaeger cited for keeping this measure off the ballot. Among the others notarized signatures from circulators that were "likely forged," circulators who were not North Dakota or even American citizens, and signatures from people who also were not North Dakota citizens.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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