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Norfolk DA probing signature fraud on business-backed ballot measures including Uber/Lyft referendum

Foxborough town clerk alleges forgery of signatures on three questions aiming for Nov. 2022 ballot.

A sign marked a pick-up point for the Uber car service at LaGuardia Airport in New York on March 15, 2017.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

The Norfolk County District Attorney’s office is investigating the possibility of fraud in the collection of signatures for four business-backed ballot questions, including two being pushed by Uber and Lyft to allow their drivers to be classified as independent contractors.

The investigation, which focuses on signatures gathered in Foxborough earlier this year, highlights how statewide ballot questions are often used by business interests to turn policy objectives into state law. One key step: hiring an outside firm to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot.

In this case, a firm called SignatureDrive.com was used by three different ballot proponents: the group backed by delivery and ride-hailing apps; an orthodontist aiming to set new price controls on dental insurance plans; and a package-store trade group, hoping to finally end a decades-long dispute with supermarket and convenience store chains about the number of their locations where alcohol can be sold.

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On Oct. 26, Foxborough Town Clerk Robert Cutler contacted Secretary of State William Galvin’s office to report what appeared to be a few forged or fraudulent signatures. (City and town clerks review and certify signatures before they go to the state.) Michelle Tassinari, Galvin’s director of elections, referred the matter the following day to Norfolk DA Michael Morrissey, noting original signatures on one initiative petition were allegedly then forged on three other petitions. Cutler, Tassinari wrote, confirmed with the signatories that they did sign on to support the dental plan ballot question but did not sign the independent contractor or liquor law petitions.

A spokesman for Morrissey confirmed the criminal investigation but declined to comment. Cutler, too, declined to comment about the probe, as did a spokeswoman for Galvin.

Given the vast number of signatures required to get a measure on the statewide ballot, it seems highly unlikely that the investigation could derail any of these initiatives. But it does shine a light on the process.

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Ballot campaigns had to submit at least 80,239 certified signatures by Dec. 1 to continue toward the November 2022 ballot, with no more than a quarter coming from any one county. Representatives for all three groups have said they submitted more than enough by the deadline — the committee backed by Uber and Lyft actually submitted two versions of the independent contractor question — though Galvin’s office is still counting them.

Robert Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, said his group did not include any of the suspicious signatures in what was sent to Galvin’s office. Mellion said it appears two individuals — out of around 100 working for SignatureDrive as independent contractors — were responsible for the bogus signatures.

“We, as a precaution, asked SignatureDrive to identify signatures that those two individuals could have had their hands on and to take them out,” Mellion said. “Anything that was suspected that they had their fingers on was pulled and not submitted to the secretary of state. We did this to ensure the integrity of what was submitted.”

Mellion estimates his group submitted about 109,000 signatures by the deadline; his ballot question would, among other things, increase the number of food-and-wine licenses for supermarket chains to 18 from nine today and reduce the number of all-spirits licenses allowed for a particular corporation, from nine to seven.

Mellion said he doesn’t blame SignatureDrive, which has a long, successful history with gathering signatures for ballot questions in Massachusetts under a previous iteration known as SpoonWorks. And he said the way the forgery came to light underscores the effectiveness of the local signature review process.

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“If anything, this demonstrates why we hired a firm to work with, to get this thing done,” Mellion said. “Anybody who does this by themselves, they can’t do it.”

SignatureDrive president Harold Hubschman declined to comment on the investigation. So did Conor Yunits, a spokesman for the Uber-and-Lyft-backed Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, which argues that its ballot questions would give delivery drivers more flexibility about where and when they can work. (State Attorney General Maura Healey has sued Uber and Lyft in an effort to ensure their drivers are classified as employees.) Mouhab Rizkallah, the orthodontist behind the dental plan question, couldn’t be reached.

A labor-backed group that is fighting the Uber/Lyft question issued a brief statement calling for a full investigation and attempting to tie the Foxborough incident to the group’s opponents.

“The victim in this case is democracy — and also the voters whose signatures were allegedly forged to advance a misleading Uber and Lyft sponsored ballot campaign,” said Chrissy Lynch, chief of staff at the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and interim director of the Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights. “These potentially fraudulent activities are part of an expensive misinformation campaign being waged by the agents of these massive companies who are trying to buy a law at the expense of Massachusetts workers, consumers, and taxpayers.”

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.