Attorney General Mark Brnovich is charging a firm that circulated petitions for the successful Invest in Ed ballot measure with violating state laws in how it paid some of its circulators.
The 50-count complaint alleges that some circulators hired by Petition Partners were paid a bonus based on the number of signatures they gathered. That, according to Brnovich, violates a 2017 law approved by the Republican-controlled legislature.
Each of those 50 violations is a Class 1 misdemeanor.
In bringing the charges, Brnovich did not name Andrew Chavez, the owner of the firm. That eliminates the possibility of jail time, not just for Chavez but also for the individual circulators who, according to a strict reading of the statute, had violated the law by accepting the bonuses.
But in choosing to go after the business entity that increases the possible fine for each violation from $2,500 — the maximum available against an individual — to $20,000 for each violation.
In a prepared statement, a spokesman for the company called the allegations of illegal payments “absolutely false.”
“We did no such thing,” said David Leibowitz. And he called the filing of these charges a “serious overreach” by Brnovich’s office.
“This is a political prosecution, pure and simple,” Leibowitz said, suggesting an ulterior motive.
“Instead of protecting the public, this case is designed to interfere with the ability of Arizona citizens to get initiatives on the ballot,” he continued. “We are confident the court will see it our way.”
But Ryan Anderson, a spokesman for Brnovich, said the Arizona Supreme Court, while agreeing to allow a vote on Invest in Ed, did conclude that several — but not all — of the bonus plans used by Petition Partners violated the law.
Voters eventually approved Proposition 208 by a margin of 51.7% against 47.3%. It imposes a 3.5% surcharge on incomes of more than $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for couples, designed to raise about $940 million a year for K-12 education.
Nothing that occurs in this criminal case can affect the outcome of the vote.
What it can do, however, is clarify the rules for what is not allowed in hiring paid circulators.
The 2017 law was crafted by then-Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, now a state senator, who has also been the author of other measures which have effectively created new hurdles for individuals to exercise their constitutional rights to propose their own laws.
It does not make it illegal to pay people to gather signatures. But it spells out that payment cannot be on a per-name basis, the method that, until that time, had been used by companies to encourage people to get as many signatures as necessary to qualify measures for the ballot.
That restriction, however, applies only to ballot measures. It does not limit how political candidates can pay petition circulators.
In the court hearing earlier this year there was testimony about how Petition Partners paid circulators based on the hours worked. But attorneys for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry presented evidence of several different kinds of incentives used by Petition Partners to encourage greater production.
One of those, known as Spin The Wheel, was specifically upheld as legal by the Supreme Court on the premise that all circulators got a chance to go for that bonus, regardless of how many signatures they got.
But the charges brought by Brnovich go after separate programs known as “Duel for the Dollars” and “Weekend Warriors” the ones that the attorney general charges had people getting extra money based on the number of signatures collected for the Invest in Ed initiative. Amounts ranged from $20 to $150.
Anderson said it was a conscious decision to go after the company and not its owner or any of the circulators.
“Our intent is to hold signature-gathering companies accountable and to ensure compliance with the law ,” he said. More to the point, Anderson said, is sending a message for future years.
“We are seeking accountability and corrective action for the industry moving forward,” he said.
In filing the charges, Brnovich puts his office in the position of defending the constitutionality of the law limiting how petition circulators can be paid. That has never been tested in Arizona.
The actual charges were filed late last month and company officials had already been served. But Anderson said that there was a conscious decision not to publicize the case until now to ensure that it did not affect the outcome of the election.
Editor’s note: A previous headline to this story erroneously said Petition Partners was indicted, when in fact criminal charges were filed without involvement of a grand jury.