Last night a volunteer in the effort to recall Bismarck Mayor Mike Seminary called me to say the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation was contacting people who signed their petition.
The signatures to recall Seminary have been collected and turned in and are currently in the process of being verified. Apparently, that verification is being done by the BCI. Which is pretty a-typical.
“From what I understand there were too many conflicts of interest,” Paul Maloney, one of the recall organizers, told me last night. Because of that, he said, the City of Bismarck didn’t want to be involved in verifying the recall signatures so they “kicked the can down the road” to the Bismarck Police Department. But there are conflicts of interest there as well. Bismarck Police Chief Dan Donlin is a supporter of Seminary, and Maloney also suggested that “half” of the Bismarck Police Officers signed the petition against Seminary.
I don’t know if that statement from Maloney is true but Cody Schuh, another organizer of the recall effort, says when he asked the BCI agent who contacted him about the signatures about why his agency was handling it he mentioned Bismarck law enforcement officers being among the signatories.
“The police department couldn’t do it because some of them signed the petition and the chief wrote a letter supporting Seminary,” Schuh told me.
Both Schuh and Maloney said BCI has been handling the verification process professionally, though they said supporters of the recall effort were taken aback initially when a uniformed law enforcement officer started asking them questions.
“It caught us off guard,” Maloney said.
Schuh said he talked with the BCI agent about the appearances of people getting a visit from law enforcement “because they participated in the political process,” and he said after that the agent began wearing plain clothes so as not to spook the petitioners.
Both Maloney and Schuh said the BCI agent was professional and made it very clear that he was not pursuing any sort of an investigation. Just a routine verification of the signatures before the recall petitions are validated.
On statewide petitions the Secretary of State’s office typically handles the verification process. They have a process which includes spot checks of a given petition’s signatories to make sure they’re real, live people who actually signed the petition and are qualified to do so. So why wouldn’t they step in to verify these petitions as opposed to the unusual step of having law enforcement start a sort of investigation?
Not only is the Secretary of State’s office already set up with procedures to do that sort of thing, but citizens getting a visit from a cop because they signed a petition can come off as a little intimidating.
Though, again, both Schuh and Maloney stressed that the BCI agent they’ve dealt with was professional and friendly.
I sent an email to Elections Specialist Lee Ann Oliver this morning asking why they didn’t get involved. I’ll update this post when I receive an answer.
UPDATE: This is what I got from Oliver:
The Secretary of State is not involved in local recall elections or really any petitions that have to be turned into another filing agency. We can visit with them about what our office does in these circumstances but they are ultimately in charge of verifying. My understanding is that the city is reviewing signatures and if they have questions on the signatures and/or circulators and can’t come to a satisfactory conclusion as far as if the signers are qualified electors, if they signed the petition themselves, and if the circulator was a qualified elector of the city then they have the right to call in investigative help and in this case they contacted BCI. It is the same process as our office would do, we have in the past contacted BCI to help us in our review process.
I reached out to BCI and they were about as helpful as they ever are about this sort of thing. “Even if we are assisting, we have no comment,” spokeswoman Liz Brocker said.
I reached out to the City of Bismarck for comment, but they had nobody available to comment this morning.