Kim Dickson racked up a rap sheet in Ohio for forgeries and drug use before she entered into another shadowy world — as a petition circulator for hire.
She passed petitions in Tempe to loosen the city’s smoking ban. She headed to California and gathered signatures to recall Gov. Gray Davis. Then, she disappeared.
Lawyers and officials in both states have questions for Dickson, but they don’t know where to find her.
Despite Dickson’s criminal convictions and the four outstanding warrants in Ohio for her arrest, she had no trouble blending into the vagabond lifestyle of the traveling petition circulator.
Traveling petitioners rarely stay in one place for long. They earn a living drifting from state to state to stand on street corners and in parking lots, hustling residents to put their names to petitions that someone is paying to have filled, according to several people who have lived that life.
Their loyalty typically isn’t to the issue or candidate they are hawking. Instead, it’s to the dollar or two they make for each signature they gather.
Wandering circulators usually can find work in one of the 24 states that allow citizens to change the law through initiative or referendum — especially in Arizona, California, Washington and Florida.
The good ones can count on the petition companies that employ them to arrange for motel rooms, ample petitions to peddle and sometimes even bus tickets.
Some petitioners are restless, down on their luck or running from a history of felonies or drug use, a Tribune investigation has found. Their pasts typically go uninvestigated.
Others are young people — frequently college students — looking for a fun way to make money or travel on someone else’s dime.
"I thought it was neat that a more pure form of direct democracy was making a comeback," said 24-year-old Matt Sluder, a recent Arizona State University graduate who stopped waiting tables in college in favor of collecting signatures.
LIVING LIKE GYPSIES
An estimated 5,000 people make their living as professional petition circulators, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a nonpartisan research group based in Virginia. Of those, between 500 to 1,000 travel from state to state searching for signature drives, according to the institute.
Technically there is no law against it.
"People do this full time," said longtime circulator Allen Sklar, who has worked on many of Arizona’s major petitions. "This is their livelihood. It is, for lack of a better word, a carnival. They just travel from town to town."
Philip Lambiase worked as a professional circulator for several years until he was indicted in 1999 on petition fraud and forgery charges. He said he often traveled the country with other young circulators while working for Lee Petition Management, a Mesabased company owned by Derrick Lee.
Lee would make the arrangements for the contracts and the motel, Lambiase said. The circulators would rent a car, drive to whatever state they were needed in, make contact with Lee’s representative and almost immediately be on the streets passing petitions, he said.
Lambiase said he could make $2,000 in a good week. Once a town had been worked over, the circulators moved on to the next one, he said.
"You are with this caravan and it’s like a bunch of gypsies moving in the night," Lambiase said. "It was brilliant because you get these people, they are young and they’re having fun and they’re going from city to city and they are making a lot of money.
"You are having people register to vote in cities that they didn’t arrive in until yesterday," Lambiase said. "And they have no intention of staying (after) they have the four or five thousand signatures they need. Then they are moving to Texas or Oklahoma or Nevada to put some other scumbag on the ballot that they’ve never met, because that’s what they are paid to do."
Lambiase left the business after pleading guilty to one felony count of fraud in August 1999.
Many states do not enforce residency requirements, Lee said. Some do not even require circulators to identify themselves on their petitions, he said.
Arizona requires circulators to be residents, but election officials say it is largely unenforceable unless the petitions are challenged by an outside group. If you are physically in Arizona and have an "intent" to stay, you’re a resident.
NOT ALWAYS GLAMOROUS
The vagabond lifestyle isn’t always glamorous for the roving band of circulators.
Dickson, her boyfriend Issac Jackson, and at least two other circulators stayed last fall at Phoenix’s Flamingo Airporter Inn, 2501 E. Van Buren St., while they collected signatures to loosen Tempe’s smoking ban.
The motel, located in an area often patrolled for prostitution and drugs, costs $35 to $45 per night, according to court records. Collectively, the four of them earned about $3,800 in a month.
Too many circulators live day-to-day and are desperate for money, said John Irvine, a Tempe resident who spent several years verifying signatures for Lee.
They would "smoke up that night whatever they make," Irvine said, referring to some petitioners’ drug habits.
"We pay them daily," he said, "and they would be broke by the next day."
A review of petitions from state and city elections circulated in the last several years also found that some circulators would get creative to prove they had an Arizona address. At least 16 listed their residence as 813 W. Madison St. in Phoenix — a mail drop for the homeless.
Nomads aren’t the norm in the petition industry, which employs many honest people, Irvine said. But they set the tone.
This is a business, he said, where home is where you live tonight, and where everybody knows to keep their money hidden in their socks.
The Tempe smoking ban petitions attracted many circulators who used shady practices to fill up petitions with signatures, court records and testimony show.
Willie Mack Jr. circulated petitions for weeks, but many of his petitions came in with names scrawled in the same handwriting. Sometime in November, Mack started making daily phone calls to Andrew Chavez, head of Tempe-based Arizona Petition Partners, the group circulating the petitions.
"Three days in a row, he called me around the same time and said he was over at Arizona Mills, and he asked if he was in trouble," Chavez said. "I said, ‘Willie, why would you be in trouble?’ He said, ‘Oh, no reason.’ "
Finally, Chavez called Mack into his office and offered him money to leave and not come back.
"I basically paid him off," Chavez said. "I paid him $200, which was close to four times what it was worth. I just felt like there was something wrong."
Mack’s signatures were some of thousands challenged in court this summer when clean air activists in Tempe filed a lawsuit to stop the weakened smoking ban from going to the ballot.
Lawyers hoped to subpoena Mack so he could explain why the names he turned in read alphabetically, as though they were copied out of a phone book. But they couldn’t find him. His last known address was 813 W. Madison St.
Dickson also was unavailable to testify in the lawsuit challenging the Tempe petitions. She had already moved on to California to help gather signatures for the petition to recall Gov. Davis.
Sometime last spring, she phoned Lee of Lee Petition Management asking for money, according to an affidavit she later signed. Lee was in California coordinating signature collection for the Davis recall.
Lee bought her a bus pass to California’s Orange County where she stayed at a Santa Ana Red Roof Inn and collected a few hundred names to support the Davis recall, according to Dickson.
But within days, Dickson switched sides and began circulating petitions in support of Davis, whose camp was paying more for signatures. On June 29, Dickson signed an affidavit saying Lee knew she was a convicted felon and not a resident of California.
"I told Derrick about me," Dickson said in the affidavit filed by anti-recall activists who sued to stop the petitions gathered to oust Davis. "He knows that I have been convicted of four felonies and also . . . that there was a warrant out for my arrest. He told me not to worry about anything. Well, I got to California on a Greyhound Bus. Derrick provided the ticket and picked me and my friend up at the bus depot in Santa Ana. Derrick took us to the Red Roof Inn."
Lee said he did not know Dickson was a felon when he brought her to California, and that she told him she intended to stay there, which fulfilled the residency requirement.
Shortly before Dickson filed her affidavit, she called Lee and told him she had been offered $1,500 to make her claims about him, and asked if he was willing to pay more, Lee said.
"I said, ‘Do what you got to do because you’re not getting a penny out of me,’ " Lee said. "I figured it was just a shakedown."
Lee said he normally runs criminal background checks on people he hires as circulators. But those checks are for criminal records in Maricopa and Pima counties, he said. Convictions and warrants from other states do not show up.
That’s why he missed Dickson’s record in Ohio, he said.
"She was pretty proficient at hiding what she was all about," he said.
In the Tempe lawsuit, Dickson’s 965 signatures were thrown out on the grounds she was not an Arizona resident. Lawyers in the Tempe case and lawyers challenging the methods used to recall Davis both wanted to talk to Dickson, but she has disappeared.
Jackson, her boyfriend, is in jail in Ohio on forgery charges. In the Tempe case, Judge Mark Armstrong tossed out Jackson’s 455 signatures, along with Mack’s 387 signatures and the 54 signatures from another circulator with a felony, Marcus Fisher.
Out-of-town circulators also worked to fill the petitions in Scottsdale last year that led to an eventually unsuccessful referendum to create a Scottsdale municipal fire department, said longtime circulator Caroline Olson.
"I was very upset with that," she said of the methods some out-of-town circulators used in Scottsdale. "I could hear what they were saying to people. I just basically stood back and watched and listened. I observed and documented several things they said were incorrect and untruthful. I heard them bragging about how they were going out of town or to Florida next."
A PETITIONER’S VIEW
Ed Stanton estimates that in the last 15 years he has carried hundreds of petitions in 22 states.
He lives in Scottsdale, he said, but has spent the past few weeks campaigning for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in California.
He grew fond of the actor and governor-elect when he passed petitions on an earlier initiative Schwarzenegger supported that boosted afterschool activities in California, he said.
Stanton staunchly defends the right to petition the government, the validity of most paid petitioners and the benefits of doing grass-roots work on the road.
Initiatives, he said, are better than "a bunch of people sitting around a table and doing something without asking the voters about it."
He said he has circulated some petitions for free, including one in support of an elderly woman in California fighting the release of a man who had attacked her.
This summer, signatures he gathered in the Tempe smoking issue were questioned in court, and some signatures he gathered were thrown out.
Several witnesses testified that they signed petitions circulated by women when Stanton swore on the back of the petitions that he was the person who circulated them.
Stanton said they must have spoken to his wife, Helene, who carries petitions with him. They sometimes also travel with friends, he said.
He said he likes his job because it allows him to take vacations that are long
enough to get to know the locals. He and his wife make anywhere from $200 to $700 a day.
"You’re your own boss," he said. "You work when you want to. You meet with different people. You talk to different people. You see different people’s views."
Who else, Stanton asks, will be willing to stand in front of a store for eight hours to get a few hundred signatures?
"Volunteers can only stand so much time," he said. "They’ll come and stand and say ‘I’ve been here for an hour. I’ve got five signatures,’ and pack up and go home. A person getting paid will stand there for 12 or 14 hours. That’s their job."