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Sabina Matos signatures investigation: Here’s what you need to know

Lt. Governor Sabina Matos gives her victory speech during an election night gathering of Rhode Island Democratic candidates and supporters, Tuesday Nov. 8, 2022, in Providence, R.I.Mark Stockwell/Associated Press

Several municipalities are now looking into what appear to be fraudulent signatures on the nomination forms for Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, a Democrat running to represent Rhode Island’s First Congressional District.

Who is Sabina Matos?

Sabina Matos is Rhode Island’s first Afro-Latina lieutenant governor. Born in the Dominican Republic, she moved to the US in 1994, graduated from Rhode Island College in 2001, and became a US citizen in 2005. She was elected to the Providence City Council in 2010, representing the Olneyville area, and she became the Providence City Council president. Her husband is Patrick Ward, former chair of the Providence Democratic City Committee. She is running to represent the First Congressional District of Rhode Island in the US Congress, and is viewed as the current front-runner in that race. You can read more about Sabina Matos here.

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Who represents the First Congressional District now?

No one. David N. Cicilline, a Democrat who had represented the district since 2011, stepped down June 1 to become the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.

Why do candidates need signatures? What are the signatures for?

Candidates needed to submit at least 500 signatures by the July 14 deadline to qualify for the ballot for the Sept. 5 primary. The signature requirement, which is part of state law, is meant as a threshold that candidates must cross to demonstrate some level of local support.

How many signatures does Matos have? Will she have to drop out of the race?

As of July 20, the 728 signatures for Matos had been validated by local boards of canvassers and certified by the secretary of state’s office, so she currently has more than enough valid signatures to qualify to be on the ballot. The campaign of Don Carlson and the Rhode Island Working Families Party have filed challenges to nominating signatures for Matos, and the state Board of Elections is scheduled to hear those challenges at 2 p.m. Friday.

Who else is running for the First Congressional District seat?

While a whopping 35 candidates declared their candidacies for the seat, less than half met the requirement to submit 500 or more certified signatures on nomination papers. No independent candidates will be on the Nov. 7 general election ballot.

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But at this point, it looks like 12 Democrats will appear on the Sept. 5 primary ballot, including (in alphabetical order): Gabe Amo, Stephanie Beauté, Walter Berbrick, Sandra C. Cano, Donald R. Carlson, Stephen M. Casey, Spencer Dickinson, John Goncalves, Sabina Matos, Ana B. Quezada, J. Aaron Regunberg, and Allen R. Waters. Nicholas A. Autiello II qualified, but withdrew his nomination on July 17.

Two Republicans — Terri Flynn and Gerry W. Leonard Jr. — will appear on the primary ballot as well. You can read more about who made the ballot here.

Is it against the law to submit fake signatures?

Yes. Under Rhode Island law, it’s a felony to file nominating papers “knowing it or any part of it to be falsely made,” and the maximum penalty for such a conviction is up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine of between $1,000 and $5,000, according to the attorney general’s office. Prosecutors also could charge people with filing a false document, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.

Who gathered and submitted the signatures for Matos?

Providence resident Holly McClaren, 51, also known as Holly Cekala, was a part-time field volunteer who gathered signatures for Matos. She was paid $15 an hour to do so.

Signatures were also gathered by other people, including Matos’ husband. Nomination forms with signatures gathered by McClaren and by another volunteer, Shanna Gallagher, of East Providence, have been flagged as having problems.

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McClaren is a longtime volunteer campaign field worker who had done work in the 2022 election cycle for Governor Daniel J. McKee and other Democrats.

On July 25, McClaren alleged she “did not forge” the names on Matos’ nomination forms.

Her attorney John R. Grasso said Matos’ campaign reached out to McClaren to help provide an “outreach team” to secure nomination signatures. She met with campaign officials, and provided a budget “she believed would satisfy the need to secure a specified number of signatures in a relatively short period of time.”

“The campaign approved the budget and a day or two later made a payment towards that budget,” said Grasso, explaining that McClaren assembled a team of “four or five people” who were then dispatched to “various geographic locations for the intended purpose.”

“Holly personally secured many nomination signatures herself but she did not collect signatures in each of the cities and towns from which signatures were collected,” wrote Grasso. “Some of the team returned the nomination papers to Holly and Holly delivered those nomination papers to the Matos campaign. Some of the team delivered nomination papers directly to the campaign without any involvement with or by Holly.”

Grasso said McClaren did not submit any paperwork to city or town officials.

“The campaign did not provide Holly or team members with any training nor did it provide any written instruction as it related to collecting signatures,” wrote Grasso in his statement. “Holly had no reason to believe that any of the signatures on any of the nomination papers that she turned over to the Matos Campaign were not legitimate.”

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Brexton Isaacs, Matos’ campaign manager, previously has said that every volunteer was provided “clear instructions” on how to correctly gather signatures. But, on July 25, Grasso said that was not true.

“The campaign did not provide Holly or team members with any training nor did it provide any written instruction as it related to collecting signatures,” wrote Grasso in his statement. “Holly had no reason to believe that any of the signatures on any of the nomination papers that she turned over to the Matos Campaign were not legitimate.”

Matos campaign spokesman Evan England said McClaren “just admitted to violating the law and ignoring the instructions for signature collection that our campaign gave her.”

“By signing each form, Ms. McClaren made a clear representation to the campaign and Boards of Canvassers, that she personally collected the signatures on the form,” said England. “Now, her attorney is admitting that she did not collect the signatures on some of the forms. We are outraged about this clear violation of the law.”

Luis Estrada — a top political adviser to state and local leaders who spent 22 years behind bars for his role in robberies before beating drug and alcohol addictions — told the Globe that McClaren used to work for him, but not any longer. According to her LinkedIn profile, she currently works as a bartender at Roma Italian Restaurant on Federal Hill, a team supervisor at Estrada Bookkeeping and Consulting, and principal CEO of Harmony and Health Solutions LLC.

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Many Rhode Islanders will recognize McClaren from a campaign commercial that McKee used last year to emphasize that his Republican opponent, Ashley Kalus, was not a native Rhode Islander. In the ad, McClaren questions whether Kalus is from Illinois, saying, “Ashley, that’s not Rhode Island.”

McClaren could not be reached for comment this week, and she did not answer the door at her Providence apartment near the State House. You can read more about her involvement with the Matos campaign here.

Who is investigating the signatures? Which cities or towns have found problems with them?

On July 21, the Rhode Island Board of Elections voted 5 to 1 to refer all signatures submitted by Sabina Matos’ campaign to the attorney general’s office for a full review and investigation.

On July 24, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office said that it would be moving forward with a criminal investigation into the problematic signatures.

The criminal investigation will look into the “full scope of any alleged misconduct as it pertains to the signatures gathered and submitted to local boards of canvassers on behalf” of the lieutenant governor in her bid for the First Congressional District seat, Neronha’s office said.

On July 26, in a written statement, the state elections board said its July 21 vote was “a referral investigate potentially fraudulent signatures, not for verification, as that work had already been completed by local boards of canvassers.” The elections board said that it is working cooperatively with the attorney general’s office on the investigation.

Since July 17, several municipalities have launched investigations examining nomination signatures submitted by the Sabina Matos campaign, and on July 19 Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office confirmed that they have taken the lead in the investigation. The Rhode Island State Police have also joined the investigation.

The potential of dozens of questionable or forged signatures on a candidate’s nomination forms may be unprecedented in Rhode Island. The staff within the State Department’s Elections Division said they “were not aware of a similar incident in recent memory,” Faith Chybowski, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Gregg M. Amore’s office, told the Globe.

However, “while troubling,” Amore told the Globe, the identification of fraudulent signatures shows “that the system is working.”

“The validation process is identifying attempts to defraud the system and the local boards of canvassers are disqualifying ineligible signatures,” said Amore on July 21. “Voters should have confidence in the processes of the local boards of canvassers, the Board of Elections, and the Rhode Island Department of State to ensure our elections are fair and secure.”

On July 31, Jamestown Board of Canvassers member Ken Newman called for the state Board of Elections to investigate all nomination papers submitted in the First Congressional District race.

Newman, who said he was speaking as an individual and not as a representative of Jamestown or its Board of Canvassers, also urged the Board of Elections to adopt practices, akin to the risk-limiting audits conducted after elections, to check the validity of nomination papers for all 14 candidates based on representative samples.

“I want to frame this not as an attempt to demonize or discredit Sabina Matos or her campaign,” Newman said Monday. “It just feels as if we really should be looking at this issue in its entirety. There should be a very clear investigation of all of the nomination papers, and we need to give members of the local boards of canvassers more support in terms of their process and some clarity.”

Newman said he is seeking to be placed on the agenda for a Board of Elections meeting Aug. 8 to present his recommendations.

“One thing that happens in short-runway elections like this is that people are under a lot of pressure, and when people are under pressure, they tend to cut corners,” Newman said. “Maybe others did, too. We don’t know, and the only way to know is to get to the bottom of it.”

On Aug. 1, Secretary of State Gregg M. Amore said he will push for legislation requiring an automatic review by the state Board of Elections if local election officials suspect forgery or other fraud on nomination papers.

On Aug. 15, the state Board of Elections said its review found “no obvious pattern of fraud” in the 1,256 nomination signatures submitted for Matos.

Some board members called for issuing subpoenas to all those who collected signatures for the Matos campaign.

An attorney for the campaign objected, saying the board risks skewing the election results by continuing to investigate as early voting begins on Aug. 16, and after the board has concluded Matos has more than enough valid signatures to appear on the primary ballot.

By a vote of 4 to 2, the board approved a motion to subpoena the collectors to appear before board after the Sept. 5 primary.

Jamestown was the first municipality to ask police to investigate nomination signatures — including the names of dead people — submitted on behalf of Matos. The Globe obtained a copy of a Matos nomination sheet containing 17 signatures, and Board of Canvassers member Ken Newman on July 17 confirmed that the signatures include the names of four or five dead people, in addition to people who are alive but that say they never signed that document. Newman also told the Globe that the handwriting for all the signatures “looks the same,” except for the last name on the list. Read more about the Jamestown signatures here.

Three members of the Newport Canvassing Authority on July 19 asked Newport police to investigate signatures on nomination papers for Matos after city staff rejected 14 of 32 signatures submitted, city spokesman Tom Shevlin told the Globe. Shevlin said that as part of normal procedure, city staff compares signatures on nomination papers with the signatures on record with the canvassing authority, and it’s normal for some signatures to be rejected during any campaign cycle. Read more about the Newport signatures here.

East Providence election officials on July 20 said they’ve asked police to investigate signatures submitted on nomination papers for Matos. While most of the invalid signatures were submitted by McClaren, East Providence officials are also zeroing in on nominating signatures submitted by another Matos campaign worker — Shanna Gallagher, of East Providence. The canvassing authority grew suspicious of a sheet containing 28 signatures for Matos after noticing that some of the addresses were wrong, and that names of some City Council members were listed with City Hall as their home addresses, said Christopher Dias, one three members on the Canvassing Authority. Dias said none of the signatures on the sheet matched the signatures that East Providence election officials have on file, and he said handwriting for the signatures appeared to be same. Read more about the East Providence signatures here.

How could this affect Matos’ campaign?

The mounting scandal threatens the front-runner status of Matos, a former Providence City Council president who is facing 11 other Democrats in a Sept. 5 primary in the First Congressional District. Matos released internal polling showing her leading the crowded field, but the scandal has given her opponents a line of attack and resulted in a week of damaging news stories. That negative publicity is compounded by the fact that some of her primary opponents have more campaign cash.

How has the Lieutenant Governor reacted?

The campaign manager for Matos issued a statement on July 20 in response to the mounting scandal.

“Our campaign was deeply disappointed and angry to learn of reports that inaccurate signatures were submitted to the campaign,” Brexton Isaacs said. “Our campaign provided clear instructions to circulators on how to correctly gather signatures. Anyone who violated these detailed instructions and the nomination process has no place in our campaign and will be held accountable. Any insinuation that our campaign in any way encouraged this is simply false and contradictory to the facts.”

The Matos campaign has distanced itself from McClaren, a campaign worker who gathered and submitted the suspect signatures. They said they have not spoken to her since the scandal came to light, and told the Globe that McClaren is no longer involved in the Matos campaign.

Where can I find the documents so I can see the signatures for myself?

From East Providence:

From Newport:

From Jamestown:

This article has been updated with news of the state police joining the investigations.





Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv. Lylah Alphonse can be reached at lylah.alphonse@globe.com. Follow her @WriteEditRepeat.