If Conservationists Say They Didn't Use Paid Petitioners, They're Lying

Yesterday a SAB reader contacted me to say he heard a report on the radio indicating that the North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks are claiming they didn’t use paid petitioners to gather signatures for a conservation measure that would divert billions in oil tax revenues to conservation projects over its lifetime.

Sure enough, here’s a report from Prairie Public in which the group claims they only used volunteers:

Opponents also claim the measure’s backers hired people to gather signatures – and they say while that isn’t against the law, it goes back on a promise the supporters have made. But Adair says the group used 550 unpaid volunteers to collect the signatures.

I think the conservationists are being pretty fast and loose with the meaning of the term “volunteer,” and if they’re claiming they didn’t use paid petitioners they are flat-out lying.

It’s not surprising that this group is sensitive to the optics of using paid petitioners. During the 2012 cycle this measure was kept off the ballot after paid petitioners got caught forging tens of thousands of names. ”We’ve learned our lesson,” Ducks Unlimited director and petition drive chairman Steve Adair told the Bismarck Tribune.

But it’s a little hard to believe that the more than 41,000 signatures collected to put the measure on the ballot (signatures Secretary of State Al Jaeger has until September to verify) was strictly a volunteer effort.

First, there’s the huge amount of money the coalition spent. As I reported yesterday, we have no idea what this group has spent in 2014, but based on what they reported spending in 2013 alone (the petition was approved for circulation in August of last year) they spent about $8 per signature (with 95 percent of the funds coming from deep pockets out of state).

Volunteers just don’t cost that much.

Second, there’s the fact that this group was advertising for hired help to, among other things, collect signatures. At least, that’s what they put into the description in a help wanted ad they posted on Craigslist.

Third, and most damning, is the fact that Mr. Adair himself signed a form indicating to the Secretary of State that they would be using paid petitioners. Section 16.1-08.1 of the North Dakota Century Code states “the sponsoring committee or the individual responsible for submission of the petition shall file a statement with the secretary of state which discloses whether petition circulators have been or will be paid for the circulation of petitions.”

I actually have a copy of the forms Mr. Adair signed in 2012 and 2014 indicating that his group would be using paid petition circulators (see below). “This form must be filed when circulators are to be paid,” it states. Mr. Adair signed the first form in August of 2012, and the second on August 1st of this year.

So, in summary, Adair and his group filed paperwork saying they were going to pay petition circulators, advertised for paid workers to collect signatures, and spent a huge amount of money during the signature collection process. But then they talk to the media about hundreds of “volunteers” who collected the signatures.

To be clear, there’s nothing illegal about paying petition circulators. It is perfectly allowable under the law. But shouldn’t this group be, you know, honest about it? Especially given their track record of being less than honest and transparent with the public?

Steve Adair Forms

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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